Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leaders Discern What to Take and What to Leave Aside

Fushan Yuan Said: "Nothing is more essential to leadership and teachership than carefully discerning what to take and what to leave aside."
-- Zen Lessons translated by Thomas Cleary

In a crowded emergency room medical personnel conduct triage, sorting patients according their relative need for medical attention, focusing on those with the greatest need first, then attending to the rest. To be effective leaders, we must conduct triage on our daily plans and activities.

Achieving objectives and meeting deadlines requires focus. If you were the chief surgeon in the ER whose skills were required only for the most critical cases, would you waste time treating a kid with a head cold? Of course not. More than a waste of time, your decision could cost the life of a severely injured patient needing immediate attention who only you were qualified to treat.

Imagine yourself the surgeon and your strategic goals and objectives are the critical patients in the room. Busy work is the kid with a cold. While most of us don't face daily decisions on where to focus that are literally life and death in nature, if we took time to visualize ourselves in this ER scenario, would we choose our tasks differently?

Productivity and effectiveness are directly related to one's ability to discern the essential from the unnecessary. This requires paying attention to what you're doing, asking: why am I doing this? Will this activity advance me toward my stated objective? If not, set it aside.

It is tempting to engage in activities that make us feel like we're accomplishing something. Sometimes it just feels good to do something that we know isn't important but will produce a tangible result, here and now. Often, the really important tasks do not provide an immediate result, which makes them less appealing.

Another question one might ask is: if I didn't do this at all, would it really matter? It may feel good to clean out a filing cabinet that's full of obsolete documents. They're just taking up space after all. But let's say you don't need to use the filing cabinet or the space it takes up anytime soon. Those obsolete files have been sitting there just fine for a long time bothering no one. Leave them alone. They'll still be obsolete tomorrow. And the next day.

Some powerful lessons come from the Emergency Room triage metaphor if we relate them to where we spend our time as leaders:

• Focus first on that which requires critical attention
• Attend only to tasks that you alone are qualified to perform
• The kid with a cold will live without any treatment at all; he doesn't even belong in the ER