[November 26, 2023] The growth of violent crime in many American cities has been in the news lately, a surprising change to a prolonged decline in crime. There are many theories as to why. One explanation, however, is that the leaders of those cities have failed to fix the small things. The lesson? Small things matter.
Years ago, New York City went through a very nasty time with high levels of violence, illegal drug use, and murder, and gained a reputation as a city under siege by criminals. With the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, out-of-control crime got the attention it deserved. Mayor Giuliani began a program with the NYPD to focus on petty crimes, like jumping subway turnstiles, urinating on the sidewalk, etc.
Using concepts taken from the Broken Windows Theory, the city began to address minor crimes and stamp out the message that no one cares and no one is watching. The theory tells us that fixing minor crimes will deter larger crimes. Criminologists are now saying that those cities experiencing a jump in violent crime are the same cities that are no longer enforcing petty crime.
One of my first lessons in small unit leadership in the U.S. Army was when, as a buck sergeant, I walked past a Soldier who was missing his hat, and I failed to correct the Soldier. Behind me, watching what I was doing, was a grisly old Sergeant Major (the most senior enlisted rank) who immediately grabbed my shirt collar and educated me on the importance of leaders fixing anything broken, even the small stuff. Walking past that Soldier without a hat meant I had just lowered leadership standards for all behaviors, including big ones.
Leaders fix the small, broken things but are also responsible for the big ones. Some leaders believe that fixing small things is beneath their dignity. They see themselves as too essential to lower themselves to do the “small stuff” and, in their minds, exempt themselves from it. Nothing could be further from the responsibility of good leadership.
Leaders fix small things because they are just as important as bigger ones. Several U.S. Navy ship captains have shared their stories about how they unexpectedly took over a ship’s command because small stuff caused a system failure to navigate properly, an outbreak of some infectious disease, or a major loss of equipment.
Small things matter. When our attention as a leader shifts off them, it gives others the idea that they are unimportant and permission to ignore them, too. That is why leaders fix the small, broken things.
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