Sometimes leaders need to be tough on some of the little things. These can have significant ramifications which are not always immediately obvious. However, because the benefits are not obvious, or seem unimportant at the time, many leaders don’t address them, also possibly feeling that they don’t want to be ‘petty’.
However, as we saw in New York between 1993 and 2001 when Mayor Giuliani tackled the horrific serious crime rates in that metropolis – he surprised everyone when he focused first on petty crime. The result was that big crime was reduced by over 50% to the point where it became relatively safe for womenfolk to walk down the streets. The same can apply here.
What are some little things which at first blush don’t seem to warrant making a fuss over? Let’s take meetings as an example – for instance, allowing:
- people to be consistently late for meetings;
- people to get away with simply not turning up and not notifying anyone in time or giving a reason;
- the checking of emails or searching the net on PDAs;
- people to keep their phones switched on, take calls or walk out to do so;
What message are being sent by the transgressors?
- you are all less important than what is on my device or what I am thinking about;
- this is boring ; I would rather be fiddling with this;
- no-one cares if I am late;
- I don’t respect the people or the system;
- my mind is elsewhere but no-one seems to mind;
- I am unable to focus on one thing at a time.
What are the other ramifications?
- they are being selfish and thinking that what they are doing is more important than what others are doing; if not addressed, this becomes ‘okay’ behaviour;
- they will repeat this behaviour and attitude in front of people who report to them who will learn bad habits;
- they will do it to clients;
- attendance at meetings will eventually drop;
- it can lead to a chaotic situation – meetings become a shambles and lose impact. Apart from being irritating and frustrating this costs serious money in wasting the time of expensive resources;
- it impacts leadership confidence;
- it impacts respect for leadership roles;
- it has a knock-on effect in other parts of the organisation;
- it is a sign of weakness;
- it will invariably be counter to what the firm’s values state;
- people follow what others do or what leaders allow – it has a horrible way of being replicated.
Fortunately, these are things we can change. Essentially this is about training ourselves and others to be timely, show respect, be one-focused, one-pointed and not easily distracted in relation to meetings or in conversation with someone. Sometimes simply asking people or reminding them from time to time is not enough. It may take a tougher stance and setting the example.
As Eknath Easwaran, the influential eastern spiritual teacher taught, we can train our attention wherever we are, whatever we are doing, and the benefits are well worth the discipline.
He gives the example of sharing the highway with a distracted driver with his mind on other things – in the lane next to you and suddenly, without warning, he wanders into your lane. Then, with equal abruptness, he realizes what he has done and overreacts – first with the brake, then with the accelerator – and darts back into his own lane. An accident waiting to happen.
If we could only see it, everything in life suffers like this when attention wanders. A mind that darts from subject to subject is out of control, and the person who follows its whims weaves through life, running into difficult situations and conflicting with other people. But the mind that is steady stays in its own lane. It cannot be swept away by an impulsive wish to check an email or the Internet on a PDA. There is no skill more worth learning than the art of directing attention as we choose.
What to do in relation to the example given above? It is really simple:
- meetings start on time;
- leaders should arrive at least 5 to 10 minutes before a meeting and be organised to start on time;
- no PDAs or cell-phones in sight or ‘on’ in meetings;
- if anyone arrives late too bad, the meeting commences;
- no calls in meetings;
- if someone is addressing the meeting give him/her 100% attention;
- emphasise that all this is not about being nit-picky but about showing respect for one another, being sensible and living the firm’s values, which 99% of the time will require respect for one another.
As Easwaran said “there is no skill more worth learning than the art of directing attention as we choose” – we do this when we arrive on time for meetings, when we do not allow ourselves to be distracted and we pay attention to someone else when they are talking to us. Such simple things. Such big impacts, throughout an organisation. And it all needs to start with the leaders.
Sean Larkan, Edge International