[April 21, 2015] With a small group of high school friends, we began college as freshmen engineer majors and with the hopes that we would survive the heavy course load heaped upon us. A few of us did finish but only those of us who had the ability to organize details in our lives and school were able to complete the five-year program. Fortunately for us, learning those survival skills in college was crucial to our success later in our professions.
“The successful leader must be the master of all details connected with the position. That means, of course, that the habit of delegating details to capable lieutenants must be acquired.” – Napoleon Hill, author of personal-success literature
Napoleon Hill also wrote that efficient leadership calls for the ability to organize and to master details. Leaders are busy people and their time is a precious resource. But it is never acceptable to use the excuse, as leaders, that there is not enough time to get something done. Nothing is too detailed, too little, or too troublesome for a true leader who is focused on a mission.
Many leaders will claim that details don’t matter so why should they involve themselves with them. Frankly, details do matter. The old proverb “For want of a nail, the war was lost …” reminds us that seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have grave and unforeseen consequences. It describes a situation in which the failure to anticipate some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome.1
One time while I was deployed to the warzone in Iraq, I delegated a building project to one of my best officers. He had my authority to take all appropriate actions and he had the money and material to get the building constructed on time. Unfortunately, I did not check whether he had personally overseen the digging of the building’s footers and the footers were not built properly. Later the building had to be condemned and never occupied.
The best and brightest leaders are those that are prepared and as we all know, not everything goes according to plan. Success means that the leaders do all those things necessary to ensure the tasks at hand are completed – ideally in the required timeframe. This means taking the time do all those things to ensure our subordinates are carrying out the tasks at hand.
To do so means knowing what the difference is between those things that are important and those which are urgent. This may seem simple but in the heat of the moment – when things are chaotic (like in combat) – people tend to go with what is right in front of them and urgent; not necessarily what is most important. Reacting to such urgent issues puts the leader on the defensive and running from one issue to the next without priority. Such ping-pong leadership leads to failure.
Learning to organize details is a difficult and cumbersome senior leader characteristic to master. It is however the one characteristic that will ensure failure if not learned and practiced.
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