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  • Writer's pictureTerry Dockery


One of my favorite quotes is: “Keep your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel, and your ear to the ground. Now, try to get some work done in that position!” Unfortunately I don’t know who said it, but they must have been having a moment of extraordinary clarity. The point: If you’re always focused on the task in front of you, you may miss the opportunity to get better results by looking at the bigger picture.

In working with both large and small organizations, I get to see many examples of leaders using short term tactical thinking to try to address strategic issues. It’s easy to get caught up in reacting to the current symptom or problem that is causing immediate pain, rather than proactively tracing the issue back to its root cause to find a long term fix that will take the organization to a higher level of overall performance. This can be said more simply: “When you’re up to your rear end in alligators, it’s easy to forget that you started out to drain the swamp.”

Example: I once spoke with the leader of a multimillion dollar company who wanted help with “a turnover problem.” For several years the company had experienced an extremely high level of turnover in some of their key managerial positions, and this problem had cost them literally millions of dollars. He was very specific about what he wanted: “What test can we use to hire better quality people for this position?” I had a very different take on his situation, and my thinking was that he should be asking a much different question: “What is the flaw in our culture and decision making processes in this company that has allowed us to lose millions of dollars before we even began to realize that there was a serious problem that needed to be addressed?”

There is a big difference between “doing things right” and “doing the right things.” The first is tactical thinking, and the second is strategic thinking; the first is management, and the second is leadership. Clearly both are needed to run a successful organization, but it’s important to make sure you are steering your ship where you want it to go rather than clinging desperately to the anchor chain as it drags you through the water. And while we’re on ship metaphors, we shouldn’t leave this topic without paying homage to that old adage about “arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” which so succinctly and poignantly points out the futility of perfect tactical implementation of a flawed strategic plan.


Technique #1: Practice a proactive leadership approach; concentrate on getting results at the “big picture” level.

Technique #2: Be sure to differentiate between short term symptoms and long term root causes when addressing issues and opportunities.

Technique #3: Create regular and recurring time with your team for strategic thinking and planning; it’s a good investment to take time to work “on” your business as well as “in” your business.

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