You’re a chief executive. Your best team of seasoned officers, effective managers, and technology whiz kids are trapped in a cave as the floodwaters begin to rise.
What will you do?
The short answer is simple: whatever you have to.
For the last 15 days, we all watched with fear and hope as rescue workers mobilized to save the dozen boys trapped underground. And if those were your people, you too would spare no expense, leave no resource untapped, and act without delay to save them. With that degree of determination and devotion, you would almost certainly succeed, as did the countless searchers, divers, pilots, and medics who collaborated in the heroic effort to rescue the soccer team in northern Thailand.
But then what? In all likelihood, you would return to your corporate office and flail about ineffectually trying to balance conflicting priorities, mediate competing personalities, reconcile long-range goals with short-term objectives, and assuage bruised egos and ruffled feathers. You might find yourself secretly longing for another crisis that galvanizes you to shift into mental overdrive so you can feel the glow of accomplishment that accompanies success.
The irony of human nature is that we often deal with big problems better than we deal with little ones. Day to day matters blur together and lose their immediacy. We get distracted and feel our energy drained by seeming trivialities. We delay taking action on a host of little issues, each of which appears insubstantial but which, collectively, may precipitate a genuine crisis if left unattended.
Like rescue workers racing the clock to save lives, we need to adopt a military mindset if we want to prevail on the battlefield of life. This involves three steps:
What do you want to get done? What problems cry out to be solved? What will success look like? What kind of time-frame will you need, and how much time do you have available?
The more clearly you define each outcome you desire, the better chance you have of actually achieving it. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”
What resources do you have? What resources will you need? Who are your natural allies, and what temporary alliances can you create? What obstacles will you have to overcome? How will you measure success?
Assessing the lay of the land will enable you to translate goals into decisive action.
Plan of attack.
What specific actions have to happen to move your plan forward? Where must you start? Which steps in the plan are necessary before others can be implemented?
Leaders are often big-picture people. But the devil really is in the details, and we need to resist the comfortable fallacy that clear vision automatic leads to success.
Priorities in time and sequencing may differ wildly from priorities of relative importance. You are the general. Make sure that your strategy makes sense, is feasible, and can be revised when plans don’t unfold as expected. Then issue orders to you captains and lieutenants and give them the support they need to get the job done.
About 800 years ago, Rabbi Jonah of Gerona offered this parable:
A group of prisoners collaborated to dig a tunnel and escape from prison. When the jailer entered their cell the next morning, he found one prisoner sitting next to the tunnel entrance. Immediately, the jailer began to beat the prisoner, saying, “You fool! You had the opportunity to escape with the others, but you did nothing.”
Successful people are often those who recognize auspicious moments and make the most of them, who strike the perfect balance between decisiveness and deliberation, who recognize that windows of opportunity do not stay open for long and should never be squandered through irresolution on the one hand or impetuosity on the other.
Paradoxically, approaching every situation as if it were life-or-death prevents most life-or-death situations from ever arising. But if we take the status quo for granted and grow complacent with the way things are, we will find ourselves drifting into chaos and trapped in the darkness of confusion.
So even if the little matters on your agenda don’t seem like life-or-death, treat them as if they might be. Because you never know — they just might be.
Originally published in Jewish World Review