This past year has been full of surprises, but one thing didn’t shock me at all about 2020: In the face of emergencies, leaders emerge. This is a timeless adage that has proven itself over and over again.
Emergencies shake up our priorities and force us to reconsider what is most important. Taking that step back to evaluate the few things that truly matter gives a leader the chance to recalibrate, check his or her assumptions and act with purpose. When you smartly change your priorities, you give yourself the best chance to succeed.
The best thing about resetting your priorities, though? You don’t have to wait for your hand to be forced. If you want to develop the leader within you, don’t wait until you have to change. Become proactive about the process starting today.
To begin, you must first acknowledge the following principles.
1. Working smarter has a higher return than working harder.
Novelist Franz Kafka said, “Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.” How do you make that happen? Doing the exact same things with greater intensity rarely works.
To get better results, you will likely have to rethink how you do something. You have to work smarter. That means finding better ways to work and making the most of the moments you have. Marketing expert Dan Kennedy says, “Disciplined use of the time everybody else wastes can give you the edge.” What leader doesn’t want that?
2. You can’t have it all.
When my son Joel was a young child, every time we entered a store I would have to tell him, “You can’t have it all.” Like many people, he had a hard time narrowing his want list. But I believe that 95 percent of achieving anything is knowing what you want. That’s especially important for someone who is leading others. If you want to be successful as a person and as a leader, you must make choices. You must narrow your list. You cannot have it all. No one can.
3. The good is always the enemy of the best.
Most people can choose between good and bad or right and wrong. The real challenge for most people arises when they are faced with two good choices. How can they know which to choose?
An excellent illustration of this can be found in a parable of a lighthouse keeper who worked on a rocky stretch of coastline before the days of electricity. Once a month he received a supply of oil to keep the lamp burning.
Not being far from town, he often had visitors. One night an old woman from the village begged for some oil to keep her family warm. He had pity on her and gave her oil. Another time a father asked for some oil for his lamp so that he could search for his missing son. An industrialist in town needed oil to keep machinery going so that his employees could keep working. Each request was good, and each time, the lighthouse keeper gave them oil for their worthy cause. But toward the end of the month, his supply was low, and when it was gone, the light went out. That very night, a ship wrecked on the rocks and lives were lost. The lighthouse keeper had been given oil for one purpose, and it escaped him.
As you become more successful and busier, you must learn to navigate the choice between two good and worthy things. How do you choose? Remember that the good must sometimes be sacrificed for the best.
4. Proactive beats reactive.
Every person is either an initiator or a reactor when it comes to planning. In my opinion, you can choose or you can lose. Proactive means choosing. Reactive means losing. The question to ask yourself isn’t will I have things to do? Instead, it’s will I do things that make a difference? To be an effective leader, you need to be proactive.
5. The important needs to take precedence over the urgent.
The more responsibility you carry as a leader, the more you have on your plate. The ability to juggle multiple high-priority projects successfully is something every successful leader must learn how to do. As the list of tasks grows, you can agonize or organize—I would rather organize.
Here is a simple but effective way to classify tasks that can help you quickly prioritize them in any given moment. The goal is to determine how important the task is and how urgent it is. Ineffective leaders jump on the urgent tasks without thinking. Effective leaders weigh both factors for each task and act accordingly. Here’s how:
- High Importance/High Urgency: Tackle these tasks first.
- High Importance/Low Urgency: Set deadlines for completion and fit these tasks into your daily routine.
- Low Importance/High Urgency: Find quick, efficient ways to get these tasks done with minimal personal involvement and time. If possible, delegate them.
- Low Importance/Low Urgency: If these tasks can be eliminated, then get rid of them. If they can be delegated, then find someone to do them. If you must do them, then schedule a small block of time every week to chip away at them, but never schedule them during your prime time
It doesn’t take much time or effort to review your priorities and evaluate the importance and urgency of each activity as it relates to them. It’s an effective way to help you focus in on the things that will give you the best chance for success.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
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