Stop Chasing Rabbits

HareAs a leader, sometimes your “stop doing” list is just as important, if not more so than your “to do” list. And one of the things that should be on your stop doing list is chasing rabbits.

If you have ever seen a rabbit being chased, they dart to and fro, first heading one way and then pivoting and moving in a totally different direction. The likelihood that one will catch the rabbit is pretty slim, however, the likelihood that the chase will take you totally off course from where you were headed is almost guaranteed. Stop chasing rabbits.

I get it. Rabbits grab your attention. There will often be well-intended individuals encouraging you to chase after them. And once you’ve started down the rabbit trail, turning around is hard . . . after all, you’ve gone this far, maybe what you’re seeking lies just around the next bend, right?!? Stop chasing rabbits.

For nonprofit leaders, rabbits may come disguised as “funding opportunities” that pull you first one way and then another. When the rabbit first caught your eye, you didn’t think it would lead you too far from your intended path — your stated mission. But, once you start chasing the money, each step may take you farther and farther from the trail you set out to follow.

Other times, “experts” may urge you to veer from your course to follow a “trend” rabbit. According to these unnamed experts, everyone is going to have to be doing it. (At which point I hear echoes of my mother asking something about “if everyone jumped off a bridge . . .”) This rabbit is especially adept at changing directions depending on which way the wind is blowing.

And then there are the “quick and easy” rabbits that seem to promise an easier path than the one that you are currently treading. Maybe quick and easy if you’re built like a rabbit, but few organizations are as agile or designed to adapt to the terrain the way a rabbit is (ever take the “quickest” route recommended by GPS only to end up stranded on a dirt road in the middle on no where?).

I am not saying you should not pursue funding opportunities, listen to experts’ predictions or look for an easier path. I am simply saying you should do all those things within the context of your path . . . your mission. Rabbits aren’t thinking about where you want to go. They are following their own trail. If your paths intersect, great! Just don’t forget to look at each new trail based on the likelihood that it will ultimately lead to where you want to go.

It takes discipline and focus to resist the temptation, but sometimes the best way to reach your destination is to stop chasing rabbits.

Avoiding the Vortex

vortexPerhaps one of the greatest risks for leaders is being sucked into the vortex of the overwhelmed. All of the details, ideas, requirements, expectations, and possibilities that spin around a leader on a daily basis can have a pretty strong gravitational pull. How do you keep this force from dragging you under, or at the very least pulling energy away from your supposed strategic priorities? In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the key is to keep your focus on “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

That has a nice ring to it, but how exactly do you do that? It’s a little like trying to stand on one leg. When you keep your focus locked on a fixed spot it is much easier to maintain your balance than if you are looking at everything going on around you. So what is the fixed spot? You guessed it . . . the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Make no mistake, simple is not the same as easy. It takes a lot of discipline to sort through all the stuff of leadership to identify the one, two or three overriding goals on which to remain focused. And identifying those goals doesn’t mean you won’t still have to deal with a myriad of questions, opportunities and challenges on a daily basis. It simply means making decisions about those things becomes much easier. You no longer feel the pull of every rabbit trail. You know your path forward and have identified which tasks belong to you alone and which you can delegate. And with each step toward “the other side”, the pull from the vortex of the overwhelmed lessens.

It is also important to recognize that passing through the vortex is a daily journey. Just because you were able to focus on your simple goals last week doesn’t mean some unexpected variable won’t pull you off course this week. The antidote? Start each week, each day, by casting your eyes on your point of focus — your simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Can’t narrow your priorities down to no more than three? Way too much on your plate to even consider that? If you can’t prioritize, then the vortex of the overwhelmed has already won. End of discussion.

But for those of you willing to focus on the simple path through the complexity of leadership . . . I’ll see you on the other side.

Oxygen Masks

Air Hostess At Work

Anyone who has flown has heard the standard airline speech prior to take-off, which includes the part about “if there is a loss of air pressure, oxygen masks will drop down . . . and if you are traveling with someone who needs assistance, put your oxygen mask on first before trying to help them.” We yawn, or continue flipping through our magazine, rarely giving the instructions more than a passing thought . . . even though they are right.

I jokingly share a similar sentiment with my senior staff, when I am concerned they are taking on too much or spreading themselves too thin, by pointing out “You know, you are no good to me dead.” In effect, put on your oxygen mask so you stay strong enough to carry out your most important tasks. Full disclosure . . . on more than one occasion my staff has also (accurately) highlighted the fact that my making such a statement is a good example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Failing to put on your own oxygen mask first is, by my observation, a pretty common challenge for leaders. We have a long list of competing demands, and there are so many people counting on us to meet their needs and move projects forward. Just a little bit longer and then we will take time to catch our breath . . . At least that is our intention until, right before we were planning to re-charge a bit, the next big opportunity/crisis/critical project comes along. So we push our oxygen mask to the side on trudge on, convincing our selves we have no choice.

There’s always a choice. And it’s not selfishness, or weakness, or a lack of commitment that prompts someone to put his or her own oxygen mask on first (even though there will be people who want you to believe all these things). It is discipline, and taking the long view, and understanding that you can’t bring your best when you are on your last breath. And your organization deserves your very best.

So find those things that are important enough to you that you will take the time to get away from your leadership responsibilities and recharge. For me, family is one of those things. While I might be less likely to take time off for myself, I will make time for my family. And I have a couple great friends with whom I get together for an hour or two every few weeks so we can all decompress a bit. Are there still times when I find myself “gasping for breath” because I have ignored my oxygen mask for too long? Yep. This is sort of one of those “do what I say, and don’t look too closely at what I do” blogs . . . but I’m working on it.

Three meetings to go, and then I’m off in search of that oxygen mask!