"Does everyone have a To Do list?," asked Jim Collins at the Inc. 500 conference in September 2008. We all raised our hands. "How many people in this room have a Stop Doing list?" Not so many. Asked what he was planning to stop doing next, he replied, “unnecessary fire drills.” To him, that meant replying to emails without thinking them through and causing havoc and false urgency within his team. That made sense to me, and I scribbled a note. I also began to research more about his background and found this article about pulling the plug. “The power of removal can be immense. A few years ago I set a goal of reading about 100 books a year. So I embarked on a vigorous program of doing. I made lists. I set aside a room as a library. I bought reading chairs, desks, lamps, and stacks of books.” “Yet in spite of all that energetic doing, too many of the books remained unread. After a tiring day I’d get sidetracked. In my left hand, War and Peace; in my right, the TV clicker. Faced with long passages on the burning of Moscow in 1812 or short quips on Monday Night Football, I’d flick on the TV and lose a couple of hours. So my wife and I unplugged and jettisoned the TV. My reading productivity soared.” Since then, he’s written four ground-breaking bestsellers and become the authority on business leadership. His wife? She’s won an Ironman Triathlon.
The term was coined as a metaphor to illuminate Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively. This trap snares lots of folks, and leaders are particularly susceptible. We're asked to make a multitude of decisions every day, usually without enough facts and often with no good answer. It can be exhausting. Given the chance to think about adjusting our revenue management strategy or the color of the lobby chairs, my mind leaps at the chance to take it easy. But I shouldn't indulge. And you probably shouldn't either.
If there's a silver bullet for being an effective leader, the Weekly Review process would be it. Leaders simply must pause regularly to look up, down, and around. Once in a while is not enough. When the leader isn't focused, organized, and stable, the organization suffers. The same is true for families, churches, teams, or any other unit. As you might have guessed, I've learned the importance of this the hard way. I've seen the suffering and unnecessary stress, and I've realized that I was often the cause. That hurt. But there's a silver lining. If we're responsible for the problem, that means we can fix it. We often talk of leadership being a responsibility and a sacrifice, and I think this practice is a huge part of that. We can always find excuses or reasons that we don't have the time, and there's usually no one to question that. But that's not the real challenge. We know that this practice often leads to scary, difficult, or complicated situations, and we just don't want to face them. (At least not right now.) So we stay in reactive mode, diligently participating in the latest fire drill and convincing ourselves that we're busy enough. We can do better. By using a roadmap, we can guide ourselves through the process and push through mental hurdles.
Leadership is hard. Perhaps inherently so. When the mission is to empower others to cause change, there's bound to be lots of challenges. CNN says being CEO should come with a health warning. One legendary CEO even called it "the torture." I think there's another metaphor that's more helpful. In an episode of Stan Lee's Superhumans, Tom Owen survives being run over by a heavy truck. Through testing, the conclusion isn't that his abdominal muscles are significantly stronger than average. Instead, he's able to generate enough inter-abdominal pressure to withstand massive external loads. "If I can't push out harder than the weight of the truck pushing down, then I die," says Tom. I think leaders can use the same approach. By generating enough internal force with our habits, we can push back against the external pressures that threaten to crush us.
A little over five years ago, I started writing here. Sometimes, I've written consistently. Mostly not. It's really hard to write when life is hard, and the last few years have been hard. (The "fall asleep at 7pm with your shoes on and contacts in" kind of hard.) Recently, I took some time to think about whether I wanted to keep writing. And if so, why. I had some interesting thought conversations with myself (and a few others), and I decided that I did. More than anything, I decided that there was a group of people I wanted to support and serve. They're the folks I work alongside each day and trade stories with on weekly accountability calls. They're the ones struggling with growing businesses and expanding teams. They're the ones guiding their communities during difficult times. They're the ones with a vision for a better future, overwhelmed with the new challenges each day brings.
With crowdsourced decision-making growing in popularity, well-known companies creating self-managed teams with no managers, and technology that makes communication simple, it’s time to ask, “does leadership still matter?” In Good to Great, even Jim Collins