A Leadership Lesson, From an Ant

As I was sitting under the canopy of our camper enjoying the late summer day and reading a book.  Suddenly, the silence was shattered by one of my boys bursting out of the camper door, quickly eating jelly toast before jumping on his bike and tearing off.  In his haste, a large crumb of bread hit the ground.

Normally, this isn’t a big deal because my boys can be a little messy (or a lot messy).  But today, there were a number of ants busily moving about in the vicinity of the crumb.  Before I knew it, one ant found the bread.  Though they’re Superman strong, this piece was too big and couldn’t be moved.

After a matter of a minute, though, there were a number of ants and all together, they carried that bread to an undisclosed location somewhere under the electric box next to our camping spot.  Through one ant’s discovery and getting others to assist, they were able to score a large find.

Ants don’t have ears (Dear Formerly Biology Teacher, Yes, I do remember something from your class).  Instead of hearing, they pick up vibrations from the ground.  With the bread crumb, I imagine the ant vibrating “Hey Folks!  I have a huge piece of food here that can feed our families for a week but I need help getting it back to the nest.  Who’s with me!!”  The other ants can feel the excitement from the discoverer and came racing to help.

If you think about it, the discovering ant was a leader.  Since it can’t use words, it got others to feel excitement, to which they were happy to join.  If the lead ant would’ve had everyone else come over and said “Just kidding!” or had everyone else carry the load while it watched and gave criticism, others probably wouldn’t have come over in the first place.

Compare the ant to our human leaders.  Though we can talk and have ears, the truly best leaders invoke feelings inside that motivate others to follow.  They have a vision that others can follow.  They share in the burden of work and praise those who did the work to senior management.  Truly great leaders work with and through others to achieve outstanding results.

There Will Always Be More

I was at a training last week where the topic was identifying your purpose in work and life, and strategies to be better at both.  There were a number of small group discussions with others at the table and around the room.  The topics covered a broad range but got us talking about how we can be better better employees, managers and family members.

As the discussions rolled on, one common theme came up often: more.  There will always be more:

  • Projects
  • Emails
  • Meetings
  • Conferences
  • Bosses
  • Kid events
  • Spousal commitments
  • House & yard work
  • Co-worker escalations
  • Family problems
  • Stuff

What we found are these smaller more items kill everyone’s time, zaps their energy and makes prioritizing what’s important difficult.  For every item someone knocked off their to-do list, three more take its place.  The more never seems to stop.

Hearing everyone else had the same or similar issues as I do, I came to the realization there will always be more.  Instead of trying to keep up, I’ve been finding ways to let go of the more little things.  I can’t be everything to everyone, so instead I focus on those things that are the most important and let the little stuff go.

There will always be more to do, always.  But instead of trying to get all the things on your list done, prioritize and focus on those items that have greater impact.  Do more of the important stuff!

Law of Triviality

I heard this story years ago but came up in a recent presentation. It had far greater meaning now than it did then.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality says that members of an organization give a disproportionate time and weight to trivial issues.  An example (fictional) is a committee had a job to approve plans for a nuclear power plant.  However, they spent the majority of their time on relatively minor issues, such as the materials to use for the staff bike shed.  They neglected the design of the plant itself, which was a much more important and complex task then a bike shed.

I relate this back to my first construction project.  More time was spent on executive and management office layouts than on the warehouse and IT configuration combined.  So much time was spent on these trivial details (all the way down to the type of caster on their reclining leather chairs), other areas of the project were delayed.

What drives us to spend so much time on such trivial tasks and issues?  Why do we neglect or put off the most important decisions?

One of my theories is the trivial stuff is usually the easiest.  I listened to two mobile app developers argue about a background color while we still had to decide what data needed to be included on the screen.  Colors can be changed fairly easily, but the data piece was much harder technically.

Another is based on the experts in the room.  In the example of the nuclear power plant, the operators probably knew how the plant should be built (how many different configurations can there be for a nuclear reactor?).  However, they probably knew very little about a bike shed but didn’t want to admit it.  Instead, they argued about what materials to use.

In your projects, there will be important tasks and decisions to be made and trivial ones.  Be sure to tackle those tough ones first and make the trivial a very short conversation.  Otherwise, you’ll spend more time on the bike shed than the reactor!

So, Someone Died. That Sucks. Who’s Their Replacement?

I was working crazy hours, 7 days a week, and was stressed beyond belief.  As a Program Manager for a multi-million dollar M&A that was losing team members to termination/reorganization left and right, my already small team was cut in half within a month of go-live.  Our backlog of work grew as fast as the bugs we needed to fix.  My compliance person quit and I was avoiding an auditor’s persistent calls.  Food didn’t seem appealing, sleep was a nice to have and my caffeine intake was immense.  Per the blood pressure machine at the airport, I was well into hypertension stage.

Then a family member, who’s also an executive, gave me great advice.

“Ask yourself, who’s gonna cry at your funeral?  Not your boss.  Not your boss’s boss.  Maybe a coworker or two.  Your boss will feel bad and may even offer to help your family.  But I guarantee that boss will have your replacement identified within 4 hours of knowing you’re dead.  You need to focus on those who are crying.”

These words came roaring back into my head recently during a meeting where half of the attendees I’d never met before.  At one point, the organizer said someone who had key information unexpectedly passed away.  Another attendee flatly said “That sucks.  Who’s their replacement?”

For a split second, everyone in the room processed what was just said.  How can this person be so cruel?  So insensitive?  Do they even have a heart?

Then it dawned on me; I need answers ASAP or we can’t move forward, so who IS the replacement?  What happens if I don’t get answers for a couple weeks?  What’s the impact?  I sure hope this person wrote stuff down.

I felt like an asshole and silently hoped the family was doing well given the unexpected loss.  But I still have a job to do.  I have expectations of me and I have expectations of my staff.  Life for me moves on.

What’s my point?  There’s a couple things.  One, be sure to be there and focus on those who’ll cry at our funeral.  Two, though co-workers will feel bad, they’ll quickly move on because they have a job to do.  You’re gone.  That sucks, but someone WILL replace you.