Colonel John Boyd is arguably one of the 20th century’s most influential military strategists.
A founding member of the self-proclaimed “Fighter Mafia”, he authored the Aerial Attack Study, which became the official tactical manual for US fighter pilots, and oversaw development of the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which revolutionized air warfare.
He developed the OODA loop decision cycle that has since become a core theory in military and legal strategy, and he is credited with largely developing the US strategy that was followed during the Gulf War of 1991.
But I’m not here to write about his military accomplishments.
Instead, I’m going to build on a philosophy that Boyd employed during his life, and which he is famous for inculcating in his students and military subordinates.
“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do?”
Boyd wasn’t a classic military man who followed orders to a tee. He refused to back down when he knew he was right, regularly flirting with outright insubordination.
His brashness made him a polarizing figure, criticized for his lack of deference but simultaneously lauded as the most talented officer of his generation.
When he was passed over for promotion in favor of “inconsequential but compliant paper-pushers”, Boyd realized that the mantra he had learned as a child, where success followed automatically from hard work and doing the right thing, wasn’t always true.
One day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go
In the military, success is defined by rank, and reaching higher ranks required conforming to the system.
Those who did not conform, Boyd concluded, would eventually reach a fork in the road, where the path of success diverged from the path of doing the right thing.
He chose to pursue the things that he believed were right, even when it brought him into conflict with the institution and his superiors. This caused him to never be promoted above the rank of Colonel, even though his contributions would easily have seen him rise to the rank of General.
He asked his acolytes to do the same thing, questioning whether they wanted to work for him and help do something important—risking career progression in the process—or keep their noses down and work their way up the ranks.
“Tiger,” he is quoted as saying, “one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.”
That decision would be between acting with purpose and doing something for their country, the Air Force, and themselves, or making compromises, becoming a member of the club, and being somebody.
Where am I going with this?
I observe many businesses reaching a similar fork in the road, facing a similar decision.
To be more profitable or to do what you’re passionate about?
To be the biggest in your sector or to produce something your customers love?
To be a billion-dollar unicorn or to do something impactful but less lucrative?
To be what others expect or to do things with authenticity and purpose?
It’s easy to see where the two paths diverge.
When venture capital and private equity investors take control of your business, compromises will be made in the name of profitability—no matter what they promise you during the fundraising process.
When you’ve built a steady business selling solutions to people who share your passion and care about your purpose, compromises will be made in the name of turning your niche product into something for the masses.
When you realize that doing what’s needed to pursue your purpose is different from what’s going to make you a millionaire, compromises will be made in the name of financial security, houses, cars, vacations, college funds, and peer pressure.
When you realize that to do what you believe in could become a life’s work without an exit or end point, compromises will be made in the name of frustration, exhaustion, overwhelm, and a desire to bank some wins and start something new.
Just like Boyd’s military acolytes, neither pathway is necessarily right or wrong. It just leads to different behaviors and outcomes.
Content marketing is the non-human face of your franchise.
It’s what the outside world sees when they find you on the internet, encounter you at an industry event, or visit your premises.
Are you marketing to be something or to do something?
So my question is: Are you marketing to be something or to do something?
Is your content about projecting an image of how you want your business to be perceived, or is it about helping others do something great?
This question hit me like a two-by-four when I read about Boyd’s philosophy, and I’m still swizzling on how to reconcile it for my own businesses and those of my clients.
We talk a lot about creating brand awareness, achieving domain authority, demonstrating thought leadership, and capturing share of voice.
Is that to help others do great things, or is it to help our company be something?
When we create content to attract staff or investors, is it to help them do great things, or to show that our company is something they expect it to be?
I write regularly about anchoring your B2B content marketing in purpose, mission, vision, and differentiation. That’s all about doing, especially when the vision speaks to how the world will benefit from your solution being widely implemented, rather than how big and wonderful your company will become.
I’ve also written about the need to shift from an “always be closing” sales-driven mindset that has pervaded B2B business for several decades to a customer-driven mindset of “always be helping”.
That’s shifting from a “to be” mindset—close deals, make money, achieve success—to a “to do” mindset—help prospects make the right decision for them, earn trust, be the company that enables their success.
Think about Boyd’s fork-in-the-road philosophy as you formulate your B2B content marketing strategy—or, indeed, your overall corporate and go-to-market strategies.
As a company, you have to make a decision between acting with purpose and doing something for the world or making compromises and being something you think investors and headline writers want to see
One day, as a company, you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.
That decision will be between acting with purpose and doing something for the world, your industry, your business, and your employees, or making compromises, becoming a member of the “successful business” club, and being something you think investors and headline writers want to see.
You will have to decide whether you want to continue working toward your purpose, helping your customers do something important, and risk never seeing a lucrative pay day, or to keep your nose down and work your way up the company rankings toward that golden exit.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either pathway.
Glory and accolades will accrue to those who lead businesses from nothing to hundreds of millions, and they will be offered prime jobs, speaking gigs, and titles.
Some of those who choose to pursue their purpose rather than the establishment pathway will do great things that go unrecognized.
To be or to do. In life there is often a roll call. What decision are you making?
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Image credits: Adobe Stock
 You can find an excellent summary of Boyd’s life and teaching in the first part of The Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday, 2016 (Bookshop)