Leaders Can Do Anything, Not Everything

Sunset in Lincoln Nebraska

Successful organizations focus on behaviors and results. They also focus on details. I’ve spent a significant amount of time working for two very successful, large corporations – Amazon and Intel. Both focus on details. Amazon is a large, complex, global organization dealing with massive amounts of details related to everything from same day fulfillment to world-class web services. Intel is a large, complex, global organization dealing with semiconductors whose tolerances are measured in nanometers. Both focus on details. As Andy Grove famously said, “only the paranoid survive.” Later, Jeff Bezos created a culture where “every day is Day 1.” Trust me, both of these successful organizations know how to focus on details.

At the same time, both organizations know how to prioritize. They recognize that there are limits. We live in a constrained world after all. Yes, they understand that details are important, but some details are more important than others. There is an ROI associated with the investment of time. The question is what will my return be? Great leaders, like great companies, understand that they can do anything, but they can’t do everything.

Please give yourself, and those you lead, permission to focus. Please give them permission to prioritize. Please give them permission to say no. It’s okay to “say no to the good in order to say yes to the best.” You can’t do it all. And for sure, if you try to do it all, you’ll have to cut corners somewhere. Not to mention that you’ll burn out and be less productive overall.

Do the best CEOs understand every detail of their organization? No. Do the best generals and admirals understand every detail of their divisions, battalions, or fleets? No. There’s a division of labor and there’s focus, at least in high-performing world-class organizations. And great leaders understand this.

I have a little saying, “I can do anything, but I can’t do everything.” This may sound arrogant, but directionally, I believe it’s true. I’m intelligent and hard-working. I know where to obtain resources. But I have limits. I can’t do everything. I can do anything (at least to date), but I can’t do everything (nor would I try).

Recently, I relocated to the great state of Nebraska…Lincoln to be exact. It’s a wonderful university town with a nice collection of start-up companies (including the one for whom I work). What has surprised me a bit about Lincoln are the beautiful sunsets and sunrises. The picture above is from a recent sunset. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It was spectacular.

It was a Saturday evening and I was about to head to a movie. But as I looked out the window, I changed my plans. I decided to sit outside on the porch, put my feet up and enjoy the evening. There was a slight breeze and a spectacular light show was taking place in the sky. I relaxed, caught by breath, and recharged my batteries. I missed the movie.

The point is that I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t go to the 7pm movie AND watch the sunset. I chose the sunset that night. Perhaps you would have chosen the movie. Regardless of the choice, the point is clear – you can’t do everything. Sometimes you must choose. The best leaders do. They understand ROI. They understand their priorities. They know how to focus. And they know how to say “no.” Great leaders understand that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

Successful companies like Intel and Amazon are known for many things, including a maniacal focus on details. But they don’t focus on every detail. Or in areas they do, they staff accordingly so there’s a division of labor. No one individual can do everything. But you can do anything if you focus and say no to the less important.

Have a great week and remember to focus. Give up everything for the sake of anything. Let me know how it goes.

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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