“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is one of the dumbest things ever said in management speak

Cast aside for a moment the simple concept that management speak itself is utter garbage…the line in the headline is a part of a very famous book on management that has become an international bestseller.

CEO’s and business leaders everywhere have taken those lines, and the central premise of the book, to mean that as long as you have the big picture right, everything else will fall into place.  Perhaps the idea sits so well with so many leaders or aspirants because having vision is fun.  Thinking about having vision is fun.  But in truth, visionaries are a far-flung group…

Take this handful of contrasting examples…and please, by writing about these business figures, most of whom are also awful people, I am not lionising them, just observing the parts of their character that has led to business success.  

Was/is Bill Gates a visionary?  After all, he built and passed on one of the most successful computer companies in the history of the world and did it from scratch.  I would argue that he is not.  More news later.

Was/is Jeff Bezos a visionary?  By his own admission he is not.  He did not “envision” the beast that Amazon became.  He says he just “got lucky”.  That is total b.s.  While his success had nothing to do with luck, neither did vision.  More news later.

Was/is Elon Musk a visionary?  Was Steve Jobs a visionary?  Was Thomas Edison a visionary?  Was Benjamin Franklin a visionary?  Yes, to all.  Is there a pattern?  Yes, there is.

A visionary sees things that others do not, sees a future state and often sees the steps required to get there, no matter how far off it might be.  The good ones, the ones we hear about, then manage to convince others and gradually begin to gain momentum as they proceed to lead or guide us to the fulfilment of their vision.  This path is cluttered with the detritus of failures, of people we have never heard of.  It is lonely until it isn’t anymore, and then it seems deliberate, but only the maniacal believe in themselves to the degree that this fevered approach requires.  The good ones surround themselves with the non-visionaries it takes to move forward.

The non-visionaries, the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos’s of this world have a different skill.  They have a unique and focussed ability to get things done, to knock heads together, to make things happen.  They are operators.  Details people.

Most effective leaders, fall into the second category, including the millions of ones you have never heard about that go about running companies we have never heard of, turning out profits and creating jobs over decades.

The people mentioned above are exceptions.  Real stand outs.  But others reading a management book like the one I started out above with come to a very different place.  The arrogant ones think that vision is for leaders and that the details are for their underlings.  What comes with this?  An inability to listen, an inability to do the hard stuff.

I can’t remember if I have blogged about this CEO before, one who I worked with many moons ago, and one who figures large in the history of successful massive start-ups to IPO…he was a little bit visionary and a lot operator—he had a visionary working for him whose vision he followed, who the entire company followed, and he was sympathetic enough to ensure the visionary had a voice and was always heard, but also surrounded himself with extremely competent operators.  I will never forget bumping into him in the hall late one night. 

“You’re here late,” he said to a young me, who felt flush with excitement for being noticed by this major dude.

“The same could be said for you,” said precocious younger self, “why?”

“The shit is hitting the fan.”

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“We’ve got a data security breach and it could bring the whole company down.”

“But you don’t write code, surely the IT folks are on top of it.”

“No, but I can go get the IT folks endless coke and pizza.  Would you like some too?”

And that was it, in a nutshell.  The CEO of a billion dollar business (that was then, just before IPO), was hanging out in the office to wait in a very personal way, on his I.T. folks, to make sure they had no obstacles in their way—that came down to more than just pizza, but also policy, budget, etc…he wanted to personally ensure that nothing got in their way as they worked through the night.  In the end, they did fix the bug, and he did stay all night…

What was revealed in that moment, and over the many months I worked with him and his leadership team, was this idea on the one hand that the CEO is like a moving fulcrum—always paying attention to every person and every detail of his business, kind of like a Chinese plate spinner, anticipating, participating, engaged, and so not arrogant or dogmatic that anyone could approach him with anything.  His belief was that a good CEO should be the least important person in the building…that such a person is constantly working themselves out of a job…and that this required extraordinary attention to detail.

Attention to detail is not the same thing as meddling or second-guessing, or micro-managing, but it is having mastery, and knowing the world around you.

I draw a parallel to this idea and what we learn through meditation and presence, to feel, truly feel, the vibrations around us.  This requires listening and receptivity.  When you are preaching and transmitting you no longer hear and feel…and those are the moments we forget how to ride the bike and fall.

If you don’t know the details you will never know what’s wrong until it is too late.

In working with entrepreneurs and executives over my life, you can tell who will make it and who will not.  Those in search of a big idea are doomed to fail.  Those who are determined to just do better will always out-compete.  So, when we contemplate just how many companies at the top were led by visionaries vs. those that were just run better, you begin to see that people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin don’t come around very often. They are black swans, disruptors…the kinds of competitors that you can never plan for, people who do truly come up with something new…But the operators are different. They are all around you. Some of them quite good. Obviously Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have created success that doesn’t happen very often, but the kind of leader they represent is what all successful business is built upon, getting the details right—even Tesla was nearly blown apart by their struggles with production—in other words, if you don’t sweat the details, nothing will come out right. In other words, the devil is in the detail. Always. And that is as true in life as it is in business.

Most humbly yours.

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