Why leadership is about focusing on what will make the biggest impact

There were bushfires approaching in three directions around our property in the Dandenong ranges near Melbourne on Ash Wednesday in 1983. My daughter had just been born the day before and I was at home with my two-year-old son. The authorities were preparing people to be ready to evacuate if the fires came any closer. It was a worrying time, but I was very clear that my son was my number one priority. I decided I would also take the dog, cat, budgie and the goat (true!) along with the photo albums and the insurance policies. Everything else seemed unimportant. Fortunately, the local CFA did a great job and doused the major fire headed our way, so we were safe. But friends in the next town were not as lucky. They had no time to think about what to take with them. Their priority was to get themselves out. They survived but lost all their possessions as the blaze took houses at random.

The point of the story is we often need to clarify what to focus on and forget the rest. It is particularly applicable in leadership, where you face competing priorities every day. My client Greg used the bushfire analogy to clarify where to spend his time and what to ignore. This is more than setting priorities, which implies completing everything on a very long to-do list. Greg decides what is the number one thing to spend his time on; the thing that will make the biggest difference. That clarity means saying no to many other demands on his time. He sees his role as a leader to advance the strategic priorities for the business. He does not allow the past to lure him back to his identity as a subject matter expert and the drudgery of predictable familiarity.

In breaking his habit of solving day-to-day detail problems, he is altering how he views himself. He wants to be a game-changing leader and to adopt the habits that would support him to make a big impact.

In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that changing our fundamental identity-based habits will have a more profound effect than simply changing our outcome or process habits. He explains that outcome-based habits focus on our goals, e.g. losing weight. Process habits are about how we get there, e.g. going to the gym. But identity-based habits target who we wish to become, e.g. someone who loves exercise.

As Greg changes his identity habits, he is shifting from seeing himself as a technical problem solver to a game-changing leader. Others now see him in the same light as he adjusts his identity habits.

Stephen R. Covey asks a brilliant question on this point in his timeless book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?”

Best Regards, Brian