Can “business as usual” be a good thing?

The short answer is “yes.” But there is more to it than that.

Goldwaters Department Store - Barry Goldwater's Business
Before he was a Senator, Barry Goldwater was a successful businessman. Here are two timeless lessons from his journal. (Tweet that)

I mentioned a few days ago that I am currently reading the book, Pure Goldwater by John Dean and Barry Goldwater, Jr. about the latter’s dad, former Senator and 1964 Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater. The book is a collection of his journal entries that gives us unfiltered access to the mind of a great businessman and public servant.

In addition to sharing with his sons what it means to be courageous with one’s opinions, Goldwater shares some timeless advice with them about running the family business, Goldwaters Department Stores. During World War II, many business owners panicked and flocked to buy anything and everything they could get their hands on, in order to stock up on goods they suspected would inflate in price.

Here is what Goldwater told his sons:

Remember I advised you not to speculate on merchandise just because every indication showed a chance of a rise in prices. Remember too that a year after the war was on I told you I was right. Well, nearly two years of the war has passed and the advice still goes. We are just now beginning to feel definite pinches that might mean merchandise shortages in the future but I still intend to wait and buy as the things are needed…we will do as we have done in the past and wait till we actually need merchandise before buying it. In other words, conduct your business as usual even though the world is not conducting itself as usual.

“Business as usual” has such a negative connotation in today’s world. The businesses we line up to buy from, that we share with our friends on social media, and whom we admire from a distance are not the ones doing “business as usual.” Or are they?


Pure Goldwater BookThink of Apple, for example. For the most part, they have built a wildly successful business by innovating in clearly defined niche and following the same formula with each product launch. In other words, they’ve done business as usual…their business.

Yes, they broke the mold, but they have succeeded, in part, because they became incredibly awesome at what they were previously only good at. They created their own mold and have, for the most part, stayed in that mold.

What if?

What if more businesses kept doing business as usual?

What if more businesses kept doing only what they were really good at?

What if more small businesses, in particular, learned to focus on a small number (perhaps even one) of projects or products that they could master, instead of worrying about the next one and the next one?

What if more business owners and leaders stopped worrying about what others were doing and focused only on improving their product(s), their customer service, and their marketing?

Do you think that might just work?

What volatile times require

One more piece of advice from Goldwater for when times are volatile.

Now as never before comes the time when the welfare of your employees is paramount. The guaranteeing to them of steady employment will come in the form of the hard work necessary to profits.

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Yes, our world has changed. People move from job to job like they changed underwear when his advice was written. But, during difficult and unpredictable times, people still like an element of predictability.

Leaders, when times are tough and each day seems to bring new, unexpected, and overwhelming challenges, turn your focus to two things:

  1. Mastering your domain. Do business as usual. Get really good at what only you can do.
  2. People. Focus on your team more than ever. And your customers.

Goldwater wrote those entries more than sixty years ago, but they are still spot-on today.

Two questions for you today:

How have you seen businesses fail when they get away from their core competencies?

When times are volatile, how have you seen great leaders keep their focus on what’s important?

5 thoughts on “Business as Usual | A Leadership Lesson from Barry Goldwater

  1. Let's Grow Leaders says:

    This is such an important topic. I agree with you in so many regards. I also work closely with Xerox and have watched them completely reinvent themselves as technology changed. There are important examples on both sides of the equation. Sometimes it’s a matter of being able to pivot, while staying true to your core strengths. Excellent post.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I was recently learning about Xerox interestingly enough.

      You are totally right. Kodak did “business as usual” in the wrong way. They failed to adapt completely. My daughter will never know that name…an icon in American business.

  2. Jana Botkin says:

    Good point about Kodak. I miss them.

    Thank you for this about Goldwater. My dad was a HUGE fan of the man. I remember being lifted onto his (Dad’s) shoulders at the local airport so I could see over the crowds and the chain link fence to get a glimpse of him when he was running for president. I was 3 or 4 at the time. . . this might be my earliest memory.

    In Poli-Sci in college (a private Christian college in the late ’70s), there was a chart in the book explaining different views on government. I was astonished that Goldwater was an example and even more astonished when I thought his philosophy was exactly right. The professor really sneered when I told him I agreed with Goldwater the most.

    Sorry. None of that answered your questions. I couldn’t contain my excitement about Goldwater.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I think the thing I admire the most about him is that his colleagues on both sides of the aisle had the utmost respect for him. In the back of the book there are excerpts from speeches given at his death. Everyone from Strom Thurmond to Paul Wellstone had the highest praises for his integrity and good nature. Rare these days unfortunately.

  3. Jon Stolpe says:

    I think the local leaders in my office have done a good job keeping the main thing – the main thing – in an every changing, increasingly demanding consumer and process driven world.

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