Dangers of Thinking Small/Promises of Thinking Big: Personal Leadership

It really pains me to see this, all the time.

People getting caught up in small details.

Have you ever felt like you are toiling away at your daily life, only to feel like you really accomplished nothing at the end of the day?

You wonder, where did my time go? I worked so hard, yet not only am I not ahead, but I keep getting more behind!

Sadly, this happens to even the best of us, when we forget to look up from our menial tasks.

Identifying the problem

Yesterday I had a chance to sit in on a little personal development session. Presented by Ralph Jacobson of the Leader’s Toolbox.

He talked about 3 roles we play, both in personal lives and at work.

  1. Individual Contributor. We take care of tasks.
  2. Manager. We manage resources and ensure the completion of tasks. Enforce stability by creating structure.
  3. Leader. We envision our missions and tasks that stem from them. Instigates instability by introducing change.

I’m not sure if those were the titles I would give to those roles myself, but I agree with his overall point.

That is, most of us spend the vast majority of our time caught up in tasks. Checking off our to-do lists.

Ralph’s point was that while tasks do need to get done, we need to balance out the 3 roles in order to be both productive and effective. The leadership role doesn’t accomplish any tasks, but without it we won’t find any satisfaction in our task completions and don’t see how our actions are impacting the greater whole, whether it’s the department you work in, your industry or humanity at large.

For some reason, we developed a society where leaders and taskers are two different groups of people. If you look at companies, executives at the top perform nothing but leadership roles. Don’t bother them with menial tasks — they have more important work to do. On the other hand, taskers aren’t expected to or sometimes even discouraged from looking up, seeing the big picture, and taking leadership to instigate change. They don’t have the big picture, they don’t have the information to make such initiatives. Besides — what do they know? They’re taskers. All they know is how to do their tasks.

This structure is efficient (see my view of why this society is the way it is) but creates a debilitating dichotomy. Leaders don’t know how to do the tasks, taskers don’t have the view of the big picture to take leaderships. So leaders end up making all kinds of decisions that make the taskers’ job hard, inhumane and ineffective. And taskers resent the leaders for making them do things without consideration for what it’s really like to do them. They feel insignificant because nobody invites them to get involved in leadership roles.

Taskers’ world view is so small, that they see tiny details, many of which are really insignificant. But taskers want to do a good job, so they spend a lot of efforts trying to get details right. I’ve seen people who spend more than a few minutes driving to the gas station with the cheapest gas price, for example, when the amount they are saving is far less than a dollar. I myself have spent a long time, comparing online vendors, to see who has the absolute cheapest price on a product I want.

What was lost on me then was that the time I spent researching and “saving money” was more valuable than the money I was saving.  The concept of my time having a value (monetary one, even) was totally lost on me then.

Some details matter, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the view of the big picture that helps us determine which details matter and which details don’t.

For example, if I were torn in a situation where my family’s needs and my employer’s needs conflict with one another, I usually put priorities on my family’s needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I take employment lightly. But employment, to me, is more temporary in nature and less significant than my family’s needs. I am a husband and father. My wife will be with me much longer than any employers, and my raising good children is a far greater contribution to the world than being a dedicated employee.

But when I didn’t have this view of the big picture — identifying what my life’s goals are and what’s important — then that kind of situation used to stress me out a lot. I would go to a great length, negotiating and adjusting tiny little details (like coming home at 5:15 versus 5:00) trying to please both.

Having decided that my family is more important than my employer, however, I don’t sweat that kind of detail much any more.

Incorporating the big picture into your small tasks

So, how do we go about incorporating a personal leadership into our day-to-day chores?

It helps to start top down.

First, identify your big objectives. Draw up a personal mission statement. Then ideally, create mission statements that apply to your various, more specific roles — one for being someone in your profession, one for your role in the family, one for being an employee, and so on.

And start your day, or your role, by taking a quick look at your mission.

If you’re a stay-at-home mom, take a look at your mission statement as a mother. Reflect on the tasks at hand and see how they serve the greater goal. It will make it clear to you which tasks are more important than the other ones. If they don’t all fit into your day, you know which ones will fall off and you won’t feel very conflicted about them.

If you’re an employee, start your day be reviewing your mission statement as an employee. You may not be able to prioritize your own tasks, but consider how they impact your organization.

As you go about your day, you make decisions constantly about what to do next and how you do them. Your mission statement will guide you about your task selection and performance.

Ideally, have a little “wind-down” time at the end. Evaluate how you spent your day, in the light of your mission. Congratulate yourself on your productivity, and make notes for improvements if the day didn’t go well.

This is a bit of a tangent, but in American culture they often tend to overlook this “post mortem” evaluation. In every employment situation I’ve been in, there have seldom been meetings after the projects/tasks are completed to see how it went and what can be improved the next time. In Japanese, we have a word called “hansei-kai,” an evaluation meeting. It is customary to have such meetings and it is a good practice.


Without the view of the big picture, it’s easy to focus on minute details that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. What empowers us and makes us feel proud/satisfied of work we do is seeing the impact of our tasks to the greater goals. Always, balance out your time between reviewing your goals, identifying your tasks and performing the tasks. If your life has nothing but performing, you are risking your productivity. You may be working, but you’re not accomplishing.

On the flip side, I suggest perpetual leaders — ones that decide what to do, and have others do them — take occasional forays into taskers’ territory. Sit at the customer service booth. Answer phones. Make reports. See what it’s really like to run those tasks, and do it all the time. You’ll get a great insight into how your decisions are impacting the performance of your team. And ask the taskers what can be done differently to make things better. You may be surprised by how accurately these people can point out weaknesses in your operation.

To be productive, we all need to identify our tasks and do them. Don’t focus on one or the other too much — the strength lies in the balance.

Be a master balancer, and you’ll enjoy days filled with accomplishments and satisfaction.

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