I’m not convinced of the “law of attraction,” but I can say for sure that its cousin, “the law of focus” applies in leadership.
And it is this: You get more of what you focus on.
We only have to look at a few anecdotal examples to see the power of leadership focus.
The VA, Schools, and the Military
Although there are many aspects in play in the current VA debacle, one of the more obvious and blatant issues centers around “gaming” the system to meet the highly visible 14-day window for veterans being scheduled for appointments. The focus was on meeting the 14-day time frame more than taking care of the veterans**.
In another industry sector we’ve witnessed a large scandal in Atlanta in the last two years that involved teachers and administrators cheating on the students standardized tests (changing answers) in order to make sure they got better grades. The focus was on improving test scores instead of the primary mission, which was educating our youth.
In the short run this method helped the adults look like they were doing their jobs and therefore more eligible for retention and raises, but in the long run this tactic was doomed to failure and the sting of broken trust with parents and the community.
Lest you elevate your profession above these two, I can tell you from personal experience this kind of behavior can happen in any organization and with very good people.
Back in the ‘70s when money and hardware in our military were short, it was impossible for some units to report C-1 (fully combat ready), yet there was so much pressure that gaming the system was not unusual. In the military culture we are taught in early training, “There are no excuses,” so many officers/leaders were afraid to stand up to their generals and say, “Sir, we’re not hacking it, and we can’t with what we have.”
These three cases illustrate situations where the focus on specific goals was counterproductive to the primary purpose of the organizations.
The problem was an extreme focus on hitting goals that were not in keeping with the stated mission, vision, and values of the organization.
Re-Focusing on the Right Goals
So how do you avoid gaming the system and still keep your credibility as a leader? Here are four steps to keep your goals pure and aligned with the mission.
1. Clarify Mission, Vision, and especially Values.
These three areas establish your purpose (why you exist), your methods (how you do your work), and your ethics (your standards and boundaries). As a leader, your number one responsibility is to clarify these areas and push that message to the lowest level of your organization. This process gives you a consistent culture that provides the same focus and built-in guardrails to keep behavior on track at all levels.
2. Communicate and Over-Communicate by Staying Engaged Up and Down.
Make sure that you develop an honest, ongoing dialogue with your people so that you know what’s really happening and they know that you’re really listening to their challenges. Remember, the higher you go in leadership, the less likely you are to get quality feedback on what’s really happening. You have to build enough trust with your followers that they can give you bad news.
3. Support Your People.
They are the ones doing the work, and it’s their responsibility to fulfill their role; it’s your responsibility is to support them. This could mean bringing in more resources, clearing out some of the red-tape and restrictions that are slowing down their efficiencies, or even redefining their goals to meet current conditions.
4. Confront Your Doubts and Fears.
This will be your biggest challenge in all three steps above. Do you have the courage to lead when it feels uncomfortable or even scary? Looking back at the three examples above, you can see that fear was the main motivator in each situation. They were focused on the wrong goals and afraid they would not meet them and therefore look bad. And when leadership caves in to fears, the outcomes are always disastrous for the organization.
So Where are You Right Now?
Keep in mind that the steps above will help you focus on the right things in your organization and allow the best goals and metrics to emerge. Here are some questions to consider:
- Are you focused on the right goals?
- Are your goals aligned with the mission, vision, and values of the organization, or are they undermining the organization’s purpose?
- Are you setting goals that are temporarily unrealistic? If so, what will your people do? Tell you that everything is okay or share the truth you don’t want to hear?
- Are you the leader who is afraid to tell your leader that you’re not making your goals? What will you do?
Maybe you’ve experienced one of these situations in the past as a leader or follower. We’d love to hear about it. Our readers could all benefit from your story, so please courageously share it with us.
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Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
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His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.