Leaders learn by leading, and they learn best by leading in the face of obstacles. As weather shapes mountains, problems shape leaders. -- Warren Bennis
About six months ago, a very neat friend of mine introduced me to road biking, a sport I really enjoy. Above and beyond fun, it also provides a great low-impact cardio workout that causes much less joint damage than running -- especially important as we get older.
When this friend took me out riding in Dothan for the first time, I not only survived the 12-mile road initiation, but also had a ball. I really think she had it in her head that I was not going to make it five miles, but I did all 12 without any problems. Ever since then, I have been hooked. Not too long ago I rode 40 miles and just came in third place in a short 25-mile race.
One thing this friend taught me is the "drafting" technique. The lead biker faces a lot of wind resistance, and you can exert a whole lot less energy by staying directly behind them.
When I was on that short 25-mile race, I was able to draft on some bikers, which made my trip so much easier. By the time we got within five miles of the finish, I had saved a nice energy reserve and was able to go full power to the end.
There is no doubt in my mind that the theory of drafting can be applied to business and has been used successfully for many years.
At the leading edge of business or technology, you take the full force of the "wind," which takes a lot of energy.
Alternatively, you can save energy by drafting -- hanging back, watching, learning and taking advantage of what the leader is doing so you can make a strong move when the time is right.
When personal computers first came out, Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore (this is really testing my memory) were all out there trying to be in the lead. Meanwhile, IBM was drafting and watching.
After observing and riding along from a ways back, it emerged to take the lead.
Think back to around 1974 when Sony introduced the Betamax for video tape mode. JVC took the drafting position and recognized that format just was not going to work well. It introduced its version, VHS, which was very successful.
Now, being in the lead position does have its benefits. You garner market share and name recognition, both of which are important. The more you have of these two elements, the greater the probability you will stay in the lead.
On the other hand, the leader assumes all the risk. A firm who is drafting the leader has the benefit of learning from the leader's mistakes so they can avoid those missteps when they move forward to take the lead.
Now go out and see if drafting might be a good strategy for your firm.
Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.