It sounds obvious, but most of us have a way of piling up “must-do” priorities, making it impossible to do a very good job on any of them. One recipe for disengaging people is to overwhelm them with things to do, all of which are “Job 1” and “key priorities” and “top-of-the-list.”
But if you unleash people to focus on one, two, or three wildly important goals—no more—they will sense the significance of what they’re doing and they’ll have a chance to win. There is tremendous power in focus. As you prioritize your goals, think about those things that must be done or nothing else matters, focus on those true priorities, and move lower priorities to the back burner.
All too many of us suffer from a personal energy crisis. We no longer work a standard eight-hour day. Our minds are constantly churning trying to make high value decisions, virtually twenty-four hours day. Our mode of life today—constant stress, poor diet, and lack of exercise and sleep—leads to what scientists call “exhaustion syndrome.”
Given enough support, any human being has virtually limitless power. Each person in your organization is unique and has an irreplaceable set of gifts, talents, skills, and passions that cannot be found anywhere else. Too many leaders have the pernicious paradigm that people are interchangeable, that one worker equals another, that they can easily replace one person with another person. They see a person as an asset, like a computer or a tractor or a robot, easily traded on the market.
I bet most of you are familiar with this adult only concept.
Imagine yourself in this scenario…
You’re commuting home after a long workday. Exhausted, you want nothing more than to eat a quick meal and a chance to relax. As you reflect on your day, you think to yourself that you were really busy, but you are not exactly sure what you accomplished that truly mattered. You further realize that this isn’t the first day you’ve felt this way. It’s merely one in a stream of days where you have found yourself returning home worn out and a bit demoralized.
A key habit of any true leader is to have a clear “end in mind,” a vision or mission that inspires and energizes people. It also means having a clear purpose in mind for everything true leaders do—initiatives, projects, meetings. It’s based on the simple principle of knowing one’s destination early; even if one fall short, there is movement in the right direction.
In many organizations, the typical approach to changing people’s behavior is to reward or threaten them. This is what Stephen R. Covey called “the great jackass theory of human motivation—carrot and stick.”
The problem with this approach is that it treats people like animals, and it works only on the surface and only temporarily. When people who are threatened they develop a paradigm of fear, and so they act out of fear. They will “work” for an organization, but they will never give their hearts. They will never speak honestly, contribute freely, or do more than required. They will never, ever tell you what they really think.
No matter what industry you work in, when your people quit work for the night, your competitive advantage quits too. You might say, “What about our mission? Organizational structure? Internal rewards program? Work processes? Computer systems? Aren’t they advantages that will overcome our competition?”
We are often told of all the things that leaders should be, how they should act, what they should say, etc. If you don’t believe me, just google the word “leadership” and you will find article after article of things that leaders should do (or not do). I know, I’ve written some of them myself.
At the root of most of these articles, you will find a habit that is truly foundational. One that matters most and is the source of much of what a great leaders does.
How Did We Get Here?
Ever since the founding of the first organization (whatever it was), leaders have struggled with this problem—how do you motivate people to give their best? Age after age of autocratic leaders used fear as the primary lever for engagement. Compliance was key. In the last century, scientific managers used the “carrot and stick” approach that was well suited to a population of workers with minimal education and low expectations. Then around mid-century, things changed. People became more educated and their expectations rose, forcing leaders to involve them more. That led to the rise of “participatory management,” which was originally supposed to flatten out hierarchies and democratize the organization.