Buffalo Bill, Eiffel, Otis and The Keys To Success

Flexible Rigidity. Sometimes you need to bend and sometimes you need to stand firm when driving forward. So what can we learn from Buffalo Bill, Gustave Eiffel and Charles Otis about the balancing act we must perform while being torn between these two opposites?

Too flexible at the wrong time and you do something you don’t believe in.

Too rigid at the wrong time and you’re simply done.

These strategies came to a head among many great leaders negotiating the path to fame and fortune by exhibiting at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Everyone who was anyone was at the fair and tempers were flaring. Whistler, (of Whistler’s Mother fame) left the American pavilion with all of his art in tow because he felt arrangements were unacceptable. Edison threw down the gauntlet with his English partner demanding his exhibits be free of charge.

Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count by Jill Jonnes includes a great ‘will they make it’ read showing the risks and personalities involved on what was an amazing confluence of engineering, invention and art at the end of the 19th century. (It’s a great read by the way. Total Recommendation!)

Rigidity Rules The Day

The Otis Brothers had won the elevator contract for the second leg, the most difficult leg, of the ride up the Eiffel Tower. Otis had worked through constant changes in the structure of the legs, complaining, but working to be flexible and satisfy Eiffel’s needs. The final straw came in two stages. First Eiffel said he would not cover the partial increase in cost caused by changes (Otis was covering a significant portion, seeing it as an investment in their European business). Then the fair commission (and Eiffel) decided to force a European style rack and pinion system (like noisy cog railways that work in mountainous areas) onto the Otis company.

“Safety, speed, and quality were characteristics on which Otis Brothers and Company of New York prided itself, but above all safety.” Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jones

The new system would go against everything Otis stood for and, even worse, would not show off their technological lead in braking systems. Charles Otis put down his foot and wrote a letter (the good old days of thoughtful communication) defending the company’s actions and drawing a line in the sand over the technology issue.

Eiffel and the fair commission had little choice but to back down (time was running out), but Otis had a huge amount to lose if the decision had gone the other way. Otis held to his beliefs, his elevators worked, and European business boomed.

Flexibility Saves The Show

Buffalo Bill Cody was first and foremost a showman. His Wild West Show with Annie Oakley had succeeded the United States and London, but whether the French would get in line was an open question.

“Almost every American present knew precisely who Col. William f. Cody was: Buffalo Bill, legendary all-American western scout, King of the Border Men, Indian fighter, crack shot, buffalo hunter, and showman extraordinaire. The French however were only familiar with the Wild West posters everywhere… they were fascinated but still somewhat mystified.” Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jones

One key innovation he brought to the wild west entertainment format was a running narrative which helped bring the audience along on the adventure. When the show opened to a packed stands containing 15,000 semi-confused French, something went terribly wrong. The French audience could not understand the fractured french of the English narrator who came with the show. Cody quickly realized the audience seemed to be dazed rather than dazzled.

Cody had a choice, he could let the show run as scripted and fix the narrator problem tomorrow, or he could be flexible. He went with a showman’s style towards flexibility and pulled out his secret weapon. Anne Oakley was sent in much earlier than the script called for. It threw off the narrative, but by the time she was finished gunslinging she had won over the crowd and ensured a prosperous run.

Stick to the script or go with the flow? The situation, your standards and the audience decides what will work.

Three things to think about before deciding whether to be flexible or rigid:

  1. What are your core values? Should you draw a line in the sand you won’t cross to participate in a project?
  2. Are you being tested? Sometimes folks are trying to understand how important an issue is, seeing if you bend tells them.
  3. What are the risks of failure from either path? Otis was caught in a corner – bend and the result injures his reputation, stand rigid and risk bankruptcy. Cody pulled the big gun our early, if Annie had let him down his show could have closed.

How do you deal with a situation that seems to demand you go off script or against plan?

Image Credit: Wikipedia
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7 Responses to Buffalo Bill, Eiffel, Otis and The Keys To Success

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Fred, Those are tough questions. Should you make some sort of risk-reward calculation, or is it more a matter of following your gut? I guess the first step is to really know what your core values are.

    BTW, the Eiffel – Otis story would make a cool movie.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..The Branding Power of Search Engine Optimization =-.

  2. Hi Brad, I think that there is a risk-reward calculation that goes on, but depending on the personality of the player it may look like a gut call. The more you understand your core values, the more you may feel the decision is obvious and non-negotiable.

    The book briefly discusses the back and forth that went on among executives at Otis concerning the technical issues, so I’m sure different scenarios were well understood. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, was a showman and the decision had to be made in a snap.

    And I agree the story seems ripe for the silver screen, although I’m afraid critics comments about a ‘plot that has it’s ups and downs’ might drive us all mad. 🙂

  3. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, I say forge ahead with the film. Actually I see a fusion of themes, with you playing Otis, Bill as Buffalo Bill, Kay as Annie Oakley, and I’ll play Eiffel. We could call it Buffalo Tower or Annie Get Your Elevator. (Kick it around at your 4:00 mtg.) 🙂
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..The Branding Power of Search Engine Optimization =-.

  4. J.D. Meier says:

    Excellent write up. I forgot about the story of Bill and his creativity.

    I’m a fan of scripting success to model the best and burn in good habits, but step out of script when you find a better way or need to follow your passions or values.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Information x Focus = Personal Reality =-.

  5. ‘…scripting success to model the best and burn in good habits.’ Neat way to look at that.

  6. Andrew says:

    Hi Fred,

    To me, this draws out the importance of planning for different scenarios. In the Buffalo Bill example, I would have thought that he would have been wise to have a back up plan to cover the event that the audience did not respond as a result of language related issues.

    On a broader note, I think that this also raises the importance, both at the individual level and at a corporate level, to have a set of clearly defined ‘non negotiable’ ethical standards beyond which we will not compromise under any circumstances. Once we have defined our core underlying values in a clear and specific manner, then we are free to exercise a high level of flexibility provided that our actions at all times remain within the bounds of our core principles and values.

    Easier said than done, no doubt.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..One wage rise which should definately be opposed =-.

  7. Blind spots are a funny thing. For Cody, my guess is that he had such faith in the announcer that it never occurred to him that language would be a barrier. (His booming voice made him an asset in those pre-amplification days). That being said, you’re right, back-up plans are a critical element of any well run operation.

    The need for ethical standards reminds me of your recent post on the question of whether companies should break the law for higher purpose. While the question of negotiation within the law is a slightly different question, the need for a solid understanding of core values has the same guiding impact. As you say, this is much easier said than done. Saying you will never work for 50% off list is simple when there is plenty of work in the hopper. But when the sales funnel is running a bit dry, taking a moral or even principled stance is very, very difficult.

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