[May 31, 2015] My grandmother, a wise and knowledgeable woman, told me once – while I was talking to her about what I wanted to do in my life – that I was making things too complicated. Her advice was blunt, “just keep it simple, you’ll enjoy life so much more” she said with a smile. I really didn’t understand what she meant until years later when I was in an adult. Since that time I’ve added keeping things simple to my personal leadership toolbox.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
Being where I am today, after a long career in the military, I have few illusions that I once held. What I did gather along that journey was a rucksack stuffed with life’s lessons that served me well in whatever I decided that I had to do. One of my first lessons as I began my military service as a young private in the U.S. Army was that war is complicated and that to survive it meant that leaders needed to keep things simple. They did so to ensure everyone could understand what to do and when to do it well.
Combat against an armed and intelligent adversary can be eye opening. Danger certainly helps focus the mind on what is important and allows us identify the inconsequential things that can be safely ignored. The best way to do that, I found, was to keep one’s life as simple as possible; without extra burdens to slow us down. This meant that my interactions with other military troopers had to be open and honest; there was no time for a lie or subterfuge. We have an acronym and it’s called KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid).1
When I look at the many people I’ve respected most in my life – my relatives, my neighbors, my teachers, my military comrades – they all were able to keep their focus on the important things. They did this by keeping their world simple like my grandmother advised me. They seemed to understand that being successful in life was not about describing our lives in the form of grievances or complaints, but that they would do so by carrying out their daily duties with a positive attitude and a respect for others. This was, it seemed, to be the best thing for good people to emulate.
As a leader I continue to keep things simple. I strive to communicate clearly and simply without unnecessary words or undue emotion. I use well-known techniques to communicate clearly and break down tasks into understandable bits. I keep my teams focused on real issues rather than on speculations and trivial issues. And, I determine what really needs to get done and prioritize those needs.
My leadership toolbox has this tool and I found it invaluable. Ask anyone in the military today and they will affirm the value of keeping things simple. It doesn’t mean that we lack creativity, intelligence, or value but that we understand that people are humans and keeping it simple works.
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