Identify what's important, what's urgent, what can wait for another day

[Editor's note: This is part 4 of a 10-part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. This time? D = discipline.]

"If you chase two rabbits, both will escape." --author unknown

In our Cornerstones of Effective Leadership series, we’ve covered some steadfast qualities of an effective leader -- L = Loyalty, E = Excellence and A = Attitude. These are invaluable building blocks of the successful leader but little would be accomplished without this next quality.

It’s never been harder to be an effective executive given the rush of information that races through our offices every day. Supplemented by the surfeit of email, social media, chat, messaging -- the ability to communicate instantly and globally with customers, employees and colleagues, the data flow becomes a seductive temptress. We stay informed, communicate rapidly and respond to inquiries wherever we are in our 24/7 world. We easily succumb to the seduction because the temptress offers immediate gratification and comfort.

I’ve written previously about Steve Jobs' conviction that his most important mission is to make sure Apple decides what not to do, an axiom known as, "Get rid of all the crappy stuff." Likewise, in the growing body of work under the heading "What Only the CEO can do", A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, and Peter Drucker, the legendary business author, have discussed extensively the critical role of the CEO to decide what business his company is not in.

Discipline is the only lasting antidote for the onslaught of information, the oppressive communication matrix and the unending stream of other tempting interruptions that impose on our ability to work on the things that matter most. Discipline requires a sharp focus on a strategy that lights the way and a plan that allows us to relentlessly implement that strategy. It requires us to regularly turn off the spigot, break off the appendages of the inane and unimportant tasks that attach themselves to our hull and limit our attention to the "strategic handful" of those things that will make greatest impact in our personal and professional lives.

Ideas are a dime a dozen and there are hundreds of them buried in the mass of information coming at us from a myriad of sources. Many of them, maybe most of them, are good ideas and may have merit under certain circumstances, but ideas without plans are merely mind tricks to keep us distracted from the disciplined approach that will bring us success. To be disciplined, we need to differentiate ideas from plans.

Successful business leaders know that planning is a critical function in their role. It isn't the tool of a soothsayer or fortuneteller. It is an invaluable instrument to organize the key activities of your business in a way that is actionable and provides a roadmap from which you can react to changing and unexpected business conditions. Implementation plans that focus on continuous improvement have been repeatedly proven to be the bedrock of successful companies. In short, it is the discipline of organized planning that creates successful businesses and helps us get rid of the crappy stuff.

Discipline is likewise important to personal productivity, i.e., how we go about dealing with the incessant flow of demands on our time. Once again, we are fielding thousands of pieces of data points every week, and we need to be disciplined to identify what's important, what's urgent, and what can wait for another day. Moreover, that discipline needs to be built into our workflow, e.g., unsubscribe from worthless email; kill off the open-door, interrupt-me-anytime policy; drop the fire-fighting gear and celebrate fire prevention; and take any other measures required to make sure that your team and you have the time to focus on the things that are most important to your success.

Discipline is about seizing the day and taking control of your own agenda. You can't spend your entire day fielding questions and solving problems that others can’t. You must have the discipline to insist that people come to you with solutions not problems. Implementing a disciplined recruiting and retention program to optimize talent acquisition is an important way to identify executives can help to solve these problems without your personal intervention.

Discipline isn’t achieved by a tough demeanor nor is it isolationist or myopic. It directs a methodical approach to identifying the most important initiatives, discarding the "nice to have" for the "need to have," getting rid of the crappy stuff and rigorously implementing your plan.

Whatever you do, don’t let distractions kill off the discipline required for you to be an effective leader.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy. You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur web site at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.