I am in the middle of writing out my own personal life plan. As part of that, I had to come up with a statement that best describes how I view life and try to summarize my value system. In other words, what’s my motto? What I came up with, I believe, is applicable to the topic of this blog. Here is my motto:
“How you do anything is how you do everything.”
There are a lot of reasons that I chose this statement, but one of them is particularly relevant here. I believe that the little things matter. Now, this is not to be confused with allowing yourself to be distracted by the “small stuff”. I agree that certain things are in fact, trivial, even though they might bother us a lot (more than they logically should). It requires discipline and focus to overcoming those temptations to be distracted by the small stuff I am speaking about how “the little things” can be a direct reflection on both your character and your value system. It also leans on the thought that people extrapolate your behavior to other situations, whether small or large. Your authenticity and character can be a direct reflection of how you handle the little things. For instance, if I see someone drops a quarter and I pick it up and put it in my pocket (instead of giving it back to them), you can probably bet that I am dishonest when it comes to big things too. But, it’s just a quarter, right? True, but it’s how we treat the little things that matter the most.
Jesus packed a lot into 3 years of ministry. He knew that every minute counted. He knew that everything he said, everything he did, every gesture he made, and every question he answered mattered. No person has ever come under the intense scrutiny that Jesus has. And, Jesus knew this would happen. Thus, he had to make sure he paid attention to all the little things. He also very wisely knew that out of little things come very big things.
In business, I do see a lot of the little things being disregarded as unimportant, and that really does bother me. People notice the little things and appreciate when leaders pay attention to them. I’m talking about the little things, like saying thank you (see week 7), making sure that your trash hits the garbage when you throw it, putting your coffee cup in the dishwasher, picking up an empty water bottle on the sidewalk and finding a place to recycle it, apologizing for being a minute late, etc. I do see too many leaders seeing things as “trivial” and “no big deal”, when they fail to realize that someone else does think it is a big deal.
If someone is supposed to get a bonus based on some profit measure, and you spend money foolishly on a dinner with clients, that might be a small thing to you, but it’s probably not to them. While the big things can take leaders to the limelight, it is the little things that keep them there. The little things matter because they allow the big things to happen. The little things sustain the big things.
The little things matter greatly when we talk about ethical leadership. Nobody consciously wants to follow an unethical leader. Ethical lapses, in my opinion, show our propensity to fall victim to temptation, to compromise, and/or to rationalize our bad deeds. These can be shown to people with little things, and they can destroy trust and confidence. Great leaders know this.
Even more of an issue is the fact that, as a leader, your followers will do according to your example. So, if you show that it is ok and acceptable (or even rewarded) to cut corners or tell a “fib” here and there, guess what? Your entire organization will suffer from an illness and will eventually crash. To err is human, but to err as an entire organization destroys credibility and can be pervasive and destructive. It can end up destroying people’s livelihoods.
Are great leaders always ethical? I think not. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. But, great leaders recognize when they have lapsed. And, they quickly correct course, ask for forgiveness, and often times they do it publicly. This can restore confidence (not to mention how therapeutic it is for the leader). People understand that we all make mistakes – that’s a very human thing. It’s when we cover it up or rationalize it that gets us into trouble and erodes trust.
Leaders need to set the tone that the organization has values, and that it is ethical. And, the values and ethics don’t just apply to the big things. They apply to the little things. They apply to putting your coffee cup in the dishwasher and making sure you tell the truth about why you came back late from lunch. The little things matter, and any organization’s leader sets the tone. All else will undoubtedly follow and permeate throughout the organization. Furthermore, if people feel like they are part of an organization that is not in line with their own ethics or morals, that can be a huge distraction for those people and/or their productivity. Their passion will almost certainly dwindle (not a good thing).
When the leader starts to compromise – that’s when the danger comes. That’s when the discipline falls apart, and, there begins the slow creep away from the ethics and values that originally got the organization off the ground. If you accept the role of leader, be prepared to hold yourself to high standards when it comes to everything – both big and little.
Jesus did not spend his time obsessed with the details, which doesn’t mean that details are not important. They are. And, he paid attention to the little things. He quickly rushed to help a sick little girl and focused 100% on that for the time required. He focused on using a loaf of bread to feed thousands of people (see week 8). He focused on and enjoyed the little things, knowing full well that they are the things that mattered. They are the things that would permeate in the hearts of his followers and would eventually write the bigger story. He uses the little things as a planted seed to later sprout into a beautiful bouquet (see week 14).
Leaders could learn a lot by following Jesus’ attention to the little things.