Are you focusing on just what you believe you can control?

This is the first article in a series of Seven Deadly Sins of Interpersonal Leadership.  


Leaders are people who get things done. They imagine a better future and exert amazing effort to make that future happen. They constantly work to make progress, sometimes in spite of extremely challenging situations.

And sometimes leaders get so caught up in making progress that they focus only on controlling what they believe they can control instead of what they should control.

How familiar do these sound?

  • Your senior team meets each week. The last meeting - 2 hours total - involved 15 minutes discussing how challenging it is to determine a long-term direction for the company and 75 minutes on current personnel challenges and the redesigned layout for the breakroom.
  • Your boss asks to be involved in reviewing the current prospect proposal, and spends a lot of time tweaking paragraph spacing and word choice. [Full disclosure here: my staff will verify I do this on occasion]
  • You and your team are graded on metrics that are easy to measure and influence, even though you know that quality of communication, relationship with the client, and engagement of team members - all soft, indirect, and hard-to-measure - are more important for overall success.

 I could go on. You get the picture.

It's completely natural that we tend to focus on the impact we believe we can make. We focus on the marketing copy instead of whether we're attracting our ideal clients. We get caught up in understanding where we are in the market data instead of figuring out how we can be different. We look at customer metrics instead of going out to the less-than-happy customer to understand their bad experience.

The things we are good at, can measure, and can most readily affect are what we're willing to hold ourselves accountable for. Unfortunately, the most important results are usually not those things.

Leadership is about trying to affect the things we may believe are out of our control

The most classic example of something that is critically important, yet not in our control, is sales. Without revenue from the people we provide services or products to, our company cannot survive. Yet while this control is firmly in the hands of our buyer, there are countless things we can do to influence the buyer to choose our service or product. As long as we don't lose sight of the fact that the real goal is helping our client and getting the resulting revenue, it's fine to measure and work to control those interim steps of web page clicks and appointments made.

The trick here is to find those things we can influence and control as we work toward those most important outcomes.

Actions you can take today

  • Figure out what you may be avoiding. Take 10 minutes and a blank piece of paper. First, draw a vertical line down the middle and label the columns "Out of my control" and "In my control". Next, think of the issues/problems/challenges your company, your team, and you have been working on recently. For each item, put it in the appropriate column. Take another 5 minutes and underline those items in the "Out of my control" column critical to your organization's success, then... 
  • Focus on influencing / controlling what you can. Brainstorm what you can do to make a positive impact on each of those critical items. Remember that air and water can wear away stone with persistence. Choose the 1-2 items where you believe you can have the most immediate impact with the least amount of effort, and start there. Bonus points if you find yourself energized and building your own momentum around influencing your future. Double bonus points if your team members start getting energized as well.     

Recently we lost Stephen R. Covey, a great teacher who helped me and millions of others understand the importance of focusing on what's most important. I've written a short blog on how he impacted me personally, and I'd be honored to have you read it and share your comments. 

Chris Hutchinson