Leadership begins with things you do. It’s not a magical set of qualities that some have and some don’t. It is built upon intentional choices and skills developed and honed by doing. You may or may not have a title that signals “leader.” It doesn’t matter. You can lead from right where you sit. Just do what leaders do.
As we saw in the first “to-do” of the series, leaders practice self-mastery: they know themselves, their values and priorities, and they see themselves how others do. The second leadership principle that you can practice is to focus.
The determination and ability to focus is a tremendous advantage. I often tell the story of my friend Bill who tried repeatedly and vainly to keep squirrels out of his bird feeder. The squirrels always won. Finally, the manager at the hardware store filled Bill in: the squirrels were focused on robbing the bird feeder 24/7 but Bill only devoted a few minutes a day to it. They beat him with their focus.
Another kind of thief, the famous bank robber Willie Sutton was almost as successful as the squirrels. Over a thirty-year career he stole over $2 million (probably tens of millions in today’s dollars) in dozens of heists. When asked why he robbed banks he reportedly said, “Because that’s where the money is.” He actually never said that. But here’s something he did say: “Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.” That was the real secret to Sutton’s “success.” While we don’t admire his ethics, we have to acknowledge the effectiveness of his strategy.
When we think about leadership, we may not think of squirrels and bank robbers, but we do need to think about focus. Successful squirrels and robbers focus because their survival depends on it. The ability to lead is just as dependent on your focus.
Focus is often what distinguishes leaders from those around them. While others may be drifting off task or distracted from the mission, leaders keep their eyes on the prize and the big picture. Colin Powell said, “When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”
Know These Things:
Leaders Provide Focus. John Riccitiello is the CEO of the video game company Electronic Arts, a position he achieved at the young age of 37. For him, keeping his team focused has been key, “You’re mostly painting a picture for a lot of people …So you’ve got to find a way to be incredibly consistent, so when other people repeat the same thing it conjures up the same picture, the same vision for everyone else.” He adds, “You have to know what you truly believe and what you truly value, and it has to be undeniably consistent. … If you stop being consistent, then nobody has the confidence to go along.”
Drifting is Dangerous. Consider the case of Kodak. For more than a century, Kodak was the leading imaging company in the world. As more imaging became digital, Kodak began to drift. Although they invented the core technology of digital cameras, they did not pursue it with focus. Even when it was clear that digital cameras were the future, Kodak drifted between its film and digital businesses. Other camera companies, like Canon and Nikon, focused on the new technology exclusively. Kodak began to be perceived as obsolete. In 1999 they still led camera sales. By 2010, they were seventh. Now they are breaking up the company and selling it. When you lose your focus you drift, and drifting is dangerous.
Distraction is Detrimental. Tom Kite, the great golfer, said, “You can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one.” Distractions can come from your environment but they usually won’t intrude on your focus unless you allow them to. Multi-tasking, once a business buzz word has fallen by the way side because studies have shown that it’s counterproductive because we spend a huge amount of time switching from one task to another. So it is with distraction. Even a brief distraction can add 25% to the time it takes to complete a task.
Do These Things:
1. Be intentional. Remember that leadership begins with your choices and your intentional activity. Focus on your goals and priorities. At each juncture – a key decision, a major distraction, a time of adversity – ask yourself if you are doing what you need to do to reach your goals. Reset your course and live intentionally toward your destination. You may look back on one of these moments when you reminded yourself of what you needed to be doing as a defining moment that helped you reach your goal.
2. Identify your MVP activities. MVP stands for your Most Valuable and Profitable activities (in both a financial and non-financial sense). When we are focused, we should be spending most of our time on our MVP activities. To determine if you’re doing that first you need to identify them. List your regular activities. Identify the MVPs. Resolve to spend 60%-80% of your time on them. You can squeeze the peripheral stuff into the remaining time.
3. Set an agenda. Staying focused on your goals requires you to remember what they are at all times. The easiest way to do this is to set an agenda, literally: write them down. Write down long-term goals and the short-term goals that lead to them. Keep it on hand or close by. Your agenda will be a constant reminder and keep you from drifting.
4. Schedule your MVP activities. You schedule important people for meetings. In the same way you should schedule your important activities to give them the time and attention they deserve. Creating blocks of time to work on your highest priorities will increase significantly the results you achieve.
Knowing what you want to truly desire to accomplish and then consistently making time to work towards those important goals is an essential part of doing leadership.