When You’re up to your Neck in Alligators

[May 30, 2019] I grew up in the Deep South part of the United States. As a kid, my biggest fear was getting bit by a Water Moccasin snake1 and eaten by an alligator. One of the first scary films (I cannot remember the name) I saw as a kid showed a man falling into a pit of alligators somewhere in Africa. To me, the expression up to your neck in alligators has an additional, more emotional meaning.

Leaders often find themselves surrounded by ‘alligators.’ It is easy to be overcome by the many miscellaneous and marginal issues, worries, problems, or tasks; so much so that a leader can lose sight of the mission. I’ve found myself in this position many times. Too many things to do and not enough time is a common barrier to leader success.

This situation can see rightly judged as a failure of leadership. A leader who is being overwhelmed is also a leader who has not properly delegated work, prioritized tasks, or given clear guidance. As an Infantry Company Commander, my unit regularly succeeded in external evaluations, but I was personally admonished for being a micromanager (an insult if there ever was one).

“I trust the people who are working for me. I delegate.” – Mario Draghi, Italian economist and President of the European Central Bank

My boss told me that I took on too many of the junior leader tasks that should have gone to my subordinates. It showed a lack of trust in their abilities and lack of respect for their rank and responsibilities. At the time, I thought to myself that this was a bunch of garbage, but later I understood.

It’s very instructive to realize that, as a leader, you cannot do everything. A leader needs to delegate, find the experts, and who is good at a given task, and consult with them. A big part of responsible leadership is knowing when to take something on and when not to.

In the U.S. military or any large organization, if you cannot delegate by the time you’re a junior leader, you will not make it. Watch out for the alligators.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agkistrodon_piscivorus
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “When You’re up to your Neck in Alligators

  1. Willie Shrumburger

    Yes, I learned about how to avoid the alligator swamp. It took a few years but my employees trust my abilities and I trust them. Want to see a proper work climate, come to where I work. Go to any org that has a good work environment and you will find happy people that are trusted to do the work.

    1. The Kid 1945

      There are many swamps (obstacles) that get in the way of being a good leader. Avoid the small stuff.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        Thanks “the Kid” for pointing out that obstacles are many but many are also small. Don’t sweat the small stuff. This is what I teach my kids in High School. Yes, there are teachers out there who do care.

    2. Mikka Solarno

      Good point Willie. Trust is at the heart of all human interactions. Without it, we have nothing.

  2. Kenny Foster

    I’m unsure if poor workers can fit into this narrative. So many are lazy that it confounds my imagination.

  3. Bryan Lee

    I shared your article with my team leader at work and asked what he thought of it. He’s a really busy guy. He said that he’ll read it later. This is exactly what you’re talking about so thanks, Gen. Satterfield for making me think.

  4. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Having spent my time in the military, I can assure everyone reading this article today that this happens all the time. In fact, one of the enemies best tactics is to overwhelm us so that no matter how good we are, we will fail. The military is always tasking us to explore our limits. This is the same as being overwhelmed by alligators. Thanks for reading my comment.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      Bill, right on target with your comment today.

  5. Georgie M.

    Good stories. Worthy read. Thank you!

  6. Yusaf from Texas

    Last week I was overwhelmed at work. I failed to complete two important assignments on time because of all the detailed work that just had to be done. Or so I thought. My boss was testing me (told me later) and wanted to see how I work under pressure. Not good enough, so I will not get that promotion later this year.

  7. Max Foster

    Today’s article title is certainly catchy. It piqued my interest and got me to read the article. Lately, I’ve been rather busy at work and at home. Just like you said, it is so easy to get distracted by the small stuff that we fail to accomplish the big things. In the family, it’s making sure everyone is loved and secure. At work, it’s keeping the boss happy and my friends taken care of properly. Have a great day, everyone!

    1. JT Patterson

      As usual, good comment Max. Thank you.

  8. Eric Coda

    Good stuff in today’s article. More people would be better off if they learned this at a young age. We don’t teach leadership anymore and when we do, we fail at it completely and so thoroughly that it’s frightening that kids ever get a chance to succeed. They will be learning the hard was that doing everything is not a path to success.

    1. Harry B. Donner

      I agree with Eric and with your article today. Keep up the great work.

    2. Greg Heyman

      Yes, njoyed today’s article. I would like to see more like this. Good story, good message. I will soon start saving my favorites and have my kids read them. Have a great day.

  9. Wilson Cox

    Micromanaging! Yes, I too was told that I was a micromanager and should learn to delegate. You got it right when you said that doing so shows disrespect and lack of trust. Of course it does despite many believing otherwise. Thank you for the pertinent article.

    1. Jonnie the Bart

      Really good stuff here today and some nice comments. This problem, of micromanagement, has always been present and will be until we start helping folks get the requisite experience they will need in the workplace.

  10. Army Captain

    Thanks for another great article on an often overlooked topic.

  11. Janna Faulkner

    Good to see you back and writing articles again, Gen. Satterfield. I liked the Guest Bloggers but I truly love reading more of your stuff. You are more entertaining as well as educational.

    1. Forrest Gump

      Me too. I’m happy to have you back on your leadership website. I’ve enjoyed the other perspectives from several of the guest article authors. More is okay. Just keep writing yourself.

    2. Gil Johnson

      Thanks Janna. My thinking exactly.

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