The U.S. military is a massive, high-powered organization that is perfectly built for head-to-head competition.

Likewise, Amazon is a massive, high-powered organization that is perfectly built for head-to-head competition.

There are, of course, small gaps in the proverbial armor. Where does one find them? Underneath each entity’s capabilities. To borrow an adage from the an unknown source:

Capabilities create dependencies, and dependencies create vulnerabilities.

For example, the U.S. military operates from an extensive computer-based system that powers a highly-effective communications network. These networks are marvels of technology. And hackable. The author Fred Kaplan, in his book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, writes about a 1997 NSA exercise that tested the integrity of networks operated by the Department of Defense. In short order, and with very simple tools, the NSA hacked their way into every DoD system.

More recently, similar exercises show these same vulnerabilities still exist. To quote Kaplan, by way of this excellent article, “In several recent exercises and war games that [a defense science board] reviewed, Red Teams, using exploits that any skilled hacker could download from the Internet, ‘invariably’ penetrated the Defense Department’s networks, ‘disrupting or completely beating’ the Blue Team.”

The U.S. military is perfectly aware of this difficulty. Their greatest capability, communication, creates their greatest vulnerability.

Dangerous Dependencies

What about Amazon? It’s harder to say. If I really knew their vulnerabilities, I suppose I’d be competing against them. In terms of head-to-head competition, Amazon is deeply capable of beating anyone in areas of price and convenience and selection. These strengths are built on great electronic infrastructures. And physical ones, too, thanks to their ever-expanding network of distribution centers.

But someone still has to deliver these items to your door.

Following the advent of Prime, Amazon developed fantastic capability to deliver items within 2 days. At one point, the revenue from those Prime memberships, matched against delivery volume, was at a manageable equilibrium that allowed the service to perform with high reliability.

Such reliable service attracts more customers. Demand increases. Rapidly. Amazon then faced a good-but-devilish problem. They had to scale the delivery operations and that’s very hard to do when the work involves physical labor and distance.

No one, not even Amazon, can defeat geography.

The solution? More drivers! Particularly through third-party vendors. More efficiency, too; more deliveries per driver.

But there’s only so much physical performance that any one person can give. I don’t know the limit but Amazon is undoubtedly trying to find it. And push it higher.

That push has made delivery jobs more grueling, more frustrating, and more demanding. Stories have since emerged. Business Insider wrote a fascinating expose on worker conditions. This has sparked calls for action.

Third-party providers can only do so much. And do you want to place this most-important aspect of the experience (delivery) in the hands of outsiders? Surely not. So Amazon keeps moving further into gig economy strategies with its Flex program.

Yet, as Vox reports, that program has weaknesses. It buckles under the strain of high costs (delivery costs have increased 1,800% over 11 years) and low margins. Prime memberships are increasing. But the costs are increasing higher. The jobs are getting worse. Deliveries are becoming less reliable.

My point? Amazon’s capability led to expectation; that expectation led to greater demand; greater demand is starting to exceed capability and this leads to a vulnerability that Amazon must address. Ultimately, this is a good problem to have. Same with the U.S. military and its robust communications network.

Nonetheless, the capability creates a dependency and that creates a vulnerability. Especially when solutions have to come from third-parties.  

I’m curious … if Wal-Mart placed one billion orders on tomorrow, would it shut down the whole network for a few days? Frustrate customers? Lead to failures?  

Better yet, it third-party providers consolidate into a single entity, would they gain the upper hand on Amazon? Similar things have happened in food markets. Costco is now starting its own poultry farms because of consolidation among third-party providers. Big Chicken (Tyson and Perdue) has the upper hand in pricing.

Sidenote: I hope you noticed the term “Big Chicken” a’la “Big Pharma”. I’m very proud of that lame joke.  

Focus Isolates Us

In 1624, the English poet John Donne wrote a classic piece of literature titled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. One particular section, called Meditation XVII, has the classic phrase “… for whom the bell tolls” of Metallica fame. This same section also has the phrase “No man is an island.” From the origin transcript, in Old English:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;”

We are all as one, interconnected and thus affected by the collective. Are we dependent, too? To some degree.

Yes, we are somewhat dependent upon a broader whole. After all, it is through public goods like roads and utilities that we’re capable of living a modern life. We share the costs and we share the gains. Similar networks are continuously emerging through globalization and social media. These are, or can be, good things! We should depend on them.

All the same, too many dependencies are a problem. And Robert Greene’s book, The 33 Strategies of War, provides many examples of why. Some examples deal directly with warfare but many more deal with the successes and failures of other fields. Like any good study of history, Greene looks to the various narratives to find fundamental truths and principles for decision-making rather than for cause-and-effect patterns for prediction.

His third strategy in the list is a real keeper. He calls it The Counterbalance Strategy. This points to the way we must fight against prevailing forces. He writes as follows:

You must stay focused, define your goals and have the confidence to achieve those goals. With this in place, strive toward that goal relentlessly.

In other words, a critical aspect of a successful strategy is to become an island. In spite of John Donne’s poetic truths.

You may read that and wonder: What does “becoming an island” have to do with goals?


Because Greene’s recommendation here isn’t about goals. He uses the term “goal” three times in that line but the real heart of the idea is about focus. This is where the island effect comes into play.

Most people lack sustained focus. Why? Because most of us are not an island. Most of us do what we do every day as part of a broader dance with our peers and community. Call it “the rat race” if you want but it can also be seen as a communal rhythm we share in our daily work.

Beyond the actions we take, there are the decisions we make. If we decide to do something and find people dislike it, we typically stop doing it. We don’t want conflict. We don’t want confusion. We don’t want to be unpopular. We don’t want to be alone.

In the workplace, this means some managers leave everything to consensus decision-making. In the name of “empowerment”. Or, perhaps, in the name of avoidance. If the whole team makes the decision, then no one person is to blame. And no one disagrees too strongly.

In the home, parents occasionally yield to a child’s needs out of a desire to spark feelings of love and joy rather than the pain that comes from a disciplined stance.

In both cases, one factor among many that leads to this behavior is intimidation. In those moments, we managers and parents feel nervous about exerting our authority. Why? Because we are sensitive. We are deeply concerned about how others will feel. We care more about their feelings than we care about a desired outcome.

In this way, we basically source our personal sense of approval from others.

This leads me to a line from Greene:

There is nothing worse than feeling dependent on other people. Dependency makes you vulnerable to all kinds of emotions that play havoc with your mental balance.

It makes you less effective, too. Greene points to Alfred Hitchcock to illustrate this idea. Apparently, Hitchcock was well-known for having complete and total control of how he made his movies. He was the mastermind of his vision, decisive and unmoved by the doubts of others around him. Even when a film crew questioned and protested his decisions Hitchcock had the uncanny ability to calmly push forward like a ship’s captain navigating the stormy seas.

Such focus! Such resolve! Hitchcock’s work speaks for itself. And proves the need for clarity in vision, purity in pursuit.

It appears, though, that Hitchcock may have been a dictator. That part is completely unwarranted. You can be stalwart and self-sure without being a tyrant.

In fact, anyone who wants to fully develop and grow as an adult must find a way through this false dichotomy of being either a subservient conformist or a self-serving jerk. We can grow into something better.

The Self-Authored Mind

If there was ever a roadmap for adult development, it was built by Harvard Professor Robert Kegan. His framework for the 5 Stages of Adult Development has recently returned to the foreground of popular thought after it was first introduced ten years ago in the book Immunity to Change.

I could summarize the whole framework but Natali Morad has done a far better job. Here’s the link to Part One of her coverage. It’s highly recommended.

For our context, the primary crossover between Kegan’s framework, Greene’s call for self-reliance, and the broader strategy for success against competitive landscapes leads to the following:

Most people operate from a socialized mindset—we source our idea of what is right and wrong based on other people’s expectations. We feel good when we feel others people’s approval.

In this socialized mindset, we define our primary capabilities based on other people’s view of us. Am I a good performer? I’ll let the audience decide. Am I a nice person? I’ll let my friends decide. Am I good at my job? I’ll let my boss decide.

We are not an island at this stage of development. We are dependent on others and thus our very own mental state is vulnerable to what they decide. Extend this to the work we do and you see it gets even worse. Our own career basically is cast to the whims of others. Often in the name of “prestige” and convention.

Kegan and others estimate that this socialized mindset occupies over half of all adults.

The next level is the self-authored mindset. A third of all adults reside at this level. To learn more, I’ll again link to Morad’s article.

Think Hitchcock. Or Obama. Or Robin Williams. Think of people who guide and motivate themselves, evaluate their own work, have a high standard of self, have a hard time fitting in. People operate from a self-authored mind after weighing all the rules, opinions, expectations, needs, and wants of all that surround them and then developing a unique system of governance for themselves, by themselves.

These people walk around with a personal manifesto.

Needless to say, there are dependencies (and thus vulnerabilities) to being self-authored. A lot of crazy people live there. Tyrants, too. But is there are millions more who are resilient, strategic, successful, and non-crazy. These people are islands unto themselves. In a good way. Without being jerks.

You can tell these people by their ability to find and maintain focus.

So it could be argued that anyone who seeks to not only strive, but do so strategically, with any modicum of real success, must be self-authored. Otherwise, the dependencies make us too vulnerable.

Whatever you define as your capability, you will find your dependency. Whether it is in the US military, Amazon, Hitchcock, or anything else. From that dependency, you will find your vulnerability. From systemic vulnerabilities of a computer network to the emotional vulnerability of a socialized mind.

The less that vulnerability is placed in other people’s hands, the better.

No man is an island? Actually, no man is born an island. But we can become one. There is something worthwhile in that idea. Even if it only relates to the way we think about ourselves.

Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash