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December 08, 2020 | Tom Ballard

PART 3: Sean P. Williams decries loss of intellectual curiosity and imagination

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a three-part series spotlighting Sean P. Williams, President and Chief Executive Officer of Protection Strategies Incorporated {PSI} located in West Knoxville.)

Many of our interviews take the Joe Friday of Dragnet approach – “The facts ma’am, just the facts” – before they conclude. In the case of Sean P. Williams, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Protection Strategies Incorporated (PSI), that was just the setup for a discussion about challenges that he sees for our nation’s future.

“For me, we’ve lost a couple of things in this country,” he says, citing intellectual curiosity and imagination. “It (the first item) gives you freedom to take risk. You want to know everything about everything.”

As far as imagination, Williams talks about Albert Einstein who described himself as not having any special talents, just being patently curious. He says it was “not imagination in a Disneyesque or pure fantasy sort of way, but (rather) the true power of thought and visualization. Einstein conducted all his experiments in his mind first, he worked out the entire Theory of Relatively mentally, he tested every aspect in his imagination first. The German term is a Gedankenexperiment (thought experiment).”

Williams also noted that in the Executive Summary of the 9/11 Commission Report, on page 9, the group found that “the most important failure (of Government) was one of imagination.”

“I spend hours working out everything until I can see clear pathways to success,” Williams says of his approach to running the government contracting firm. “It’s a thought experiment working to fully envision every step, every potential obstacle, every threat, every outcome and ultimately a pathway to success which is much easier said than done. To be successful, you have to be able to see the whole sphere.”

Williams cites early work by Margret Wheatley and others on Chaos Theory. “It teaches us that when you get back far enough away from chaos, definable patterns always emerge, even in businesses and organizations. So, you have to get far enough back to see everything and be able to drill down to the tiniest detail as well. This is where is intellectual curiosity is critical, without a deep passion for learning, a deep desire to pursue knowledge, it is impossible to see the threats, opportunities and pathways to success in any market. In an age of specialization, many have lost the understanding that a passion for general knowledge often exposes those seemingly unrelated things that impact your business.”

PSI’s CEO believes the absence of deep intellectual curiosity is a critically missing ingredient for so many Americans, which makes us vulnerable, and he offers this example: “The Chinese understand our politics more than we know them ourselves.”

Citing Peter Drucker, Williams talks about the legendary management consultant, educator, and author’s advice to “look out the window and see what others don’t see.” More important, PSI’s top executive cites two great examples of individuals who saw things that others did not. One was Henry Ford with the legendary Model T, the other is Jeff Bezos with Amazon. One of his favorite quotes is from Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” About both Ford and Bezos, Williams says, “Both were passionately curious and possessed powerful imaginations.”

He adds that those who are very successful in the national and global security business study the enemy, understand their weaknesses, and imagine what is possible. To illustrate the point, Williams cites Subotai, Genghis Kahn’s greatest general who won more battles and campaigns than any other person in known history.

“The greatest generals can see the entire battlefield, and they have won the battle before their opponents even know it has started,” he says, noting that successful business executives do the same thing with their examination of markets. “Being good at something or having a good idea means nothing if you can’t tie it to a market where a sufficient number of customers are willing to pay you for it.”

So, what’s the prescription for business executives who want to increase their curiosity and imagination rankings? It starts with carving out time to read daily, something that Williams does. “Reading a broad range of books is crucial to fostering curiosity, to gaining general knowledge, and reading everyday takes commitment,” he says. “You have to do the work. Developing the imagination leads to seeing clear pathways to success.  Intellectual curiosity informs the imagination and leads to seeing things other people don’t see.”

Williams continues: “It is important to note that knowledge and imagination are useless without action, and taking action often forces us to face our fears (doubts, insecurities, etc.) So many great people and ideas never succeed, failure to act prevents them from making the mistakes and having the failures that are the corner/foundation stones of every successful person I know. I believe this is why, in part, that God’s most often repeated command from the Old Testament to the New is “Do not fear.”

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