"The force of an object is equal to its mass times its acceleration.” –Newton's Second Law of Motion

Last time, we discussed Newton’s First Law of Motion in the context of momentum driving business success. To go a step further, which admittedly strains my physics knowledge, Newton’s Second Law similarly has a crazy uncle hanging out in the business community.

Newton concluded that the acceleration of an object is dependent upon two variables – the force acting upon the object and the mass of the object. As in business, when the force is increased, the acceleration is increased. Often those who experience greater pressure to get something done accelerate the speed at which it gets done. While important, this approach has its limitations, as we’ll see.

According to Newton, it’s also true that the doubling of the mass results in halving the acceleration, assuming the force is held constant. Likewise by halving the mass, the acceleration will double. In business, haven’t we all learned that the more entrenched we are in doing things the same old way, the more force it takes to create change? Intuitively, we know that we can create a lean, agile organization that can move faster – or, like Sisyphus, apply continuous force to move the rock uphill.

Physics professors stress that force does not cause motion, it causes acceleration. Force is not needed to keep things in motion, assuming there is not the presence of another force to slow or stop it. The concept of inertia means that objects in motion only stop because of some kind of friction – something gets in the way to stop their progress.

In our business life, these concepts come together in many ways. How often have we found that sound initiatives we have started seem to grind to a halt? We started out right, got everyone working together, everyone knew what he or she was supposed to do ... and then it stopped. Why did that happen? Almost certainly, it’s because another force created friction that slowed down the motion, often bringing it to a complete stop. In these situations, we have two choices: We can apply greater force to keep that initiative moving forward, or we can reduce the friction so that the initiative can proceed with fewer obstacles.

Most of the time, we think about applying more force, don’t we? … pushing harder, demanding explanations, maybe raising our voices? A good leader, however, should resist applying more force and instead work to eliminate the friction, the obstacles that are an impediment to success. That same leader will also embrace what Newton defined as velocity, which is the component that adds direction to the concept of speed. Thus, a simple walk around the block may be at great speed but if you return to where you began, you’ve created no velocity because you haven’t changed positions.

So, speed is not enough to accomplish our mission. We also need velocity – direction that represents movement from our original position. It’s velocity that we need to drive our companies in the right direction, with appropriate force applied judiciously to initiate motion and hard work to eliminate the friction that impedes our forward movement.

What Newton learned about objects, we’ve learned about people and organizations. Force might be applied indiscriminately to certain inanimate objects, but when people are involved, successful leaders have learned that they’ll achieve better results by removing the friction that slows their progress rather than applying greater force.

Focus on facilitating progress and provide unwavering support to enable your team to move ahead with both agility and alacrity.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors Inc., providing practical business strategies for family and other privately owned businesses in the middle market. He works closely with senior executives and their businesses to accelerate their growth and improve personal and professional performance and hosts a CEO Round Table for middle-market companies in the North Bay.