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Stay Close to the Action

Keep a finger squarely on the pulse of your business by getting out of your bubble.

In October of 1861, six months into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln relieved Gen. John C. Fremont from command of the Department of the West. Fremont’s transgressions were many. He had issued a proclamation without Lincoln’s approval declaring martial law in his jurisdiction. He had made political blunders that risked turning critical border states over to the ready arms of the Confederacy. He had misused public funds, surrounded himself with unscrupulous advisors, and had generally proven himself to be a grossly inept leader. Yet, in a letter to Fremont’s replacement, Gen. David Hunter, Lincoln cited one of Fremont’s shortcomings above all — his insular nature. “His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with,” wrote Lincoln.

Leadership — Stay in close contact

As leaders and managers, it’s critical to avoid the trap of believing that you can keep your finger on the pulse of your business from a distance. Not only does isolating yourself blur out the critical details of your operation, but it increases the likelihood that the news that does reach you is biased. Front-line teams are almost always the first to be aware of the problems plaguing your operations, and, generally speaking, people are slow to share bad news, especially up the chain of command.

According to one story, famed physicist Richard Feynman was recruited to join the commission investigating the Challenger disaster. Feynman decided to ask a question: “What is the probability of the main engine on the shuttle failing?” Keep in mind that a main engine failure was not to blame for the Challenger disaster, an explosion in the fuel tank was. Feynman’s question was strictly intended to probe a hypothesis. His hunch was confirmed when he found a massive disparity in risk assessments. Lower-level engineers at the company put the odds at around 1 in 200, while executives at the top had a much rosier view, putting the odds at around 1 in 100,000. If you were about to strap your butt to a couple of million pounds of rocket fuel, whose opinion would you trust more?

Also by Jason Griffing: It’s Time to Rethink Service

Staying close to the action is clearly vital for forming an accurate picture of your business, but this should not be read as permission to micromanage. Staying close to the action is about taking full ownership of the end results your team produces while giving them the space to experiment with different approaches and make mistakes. It’s about diving deep to understand the crucial few aspects that drive results in your business, not getting distracted by the trivial many. It’s about rooting out the thorniest issues plaguing your operation and playing an active role in identifying and implementing solutions. Micromanagement, on the other hand, is nothing more than the result of being yanked around by your own reactivity and insecurities. It’s about telling people how to do their jobs because you don’t trust them to figure it out themselves.

If you are looking for ways to stay more in touch, there’s no need to overcomplicate it. Take, for example, the famous method developed in the 1970s at Hewlett-Packard, aptly named “management by walking around,” or MBWA for short. Dedicate some time to unstructured meanderings through your business. Ask what people are up to. Get genuinely curious about the nature of their work. What problems are they facing? What tools do they have available to solve them? What tools do they wish they had? Pick a random site meeting for an important project and join it. Find a challenge that’s been plaguing your team and roll up your sleeves. Facilitate a brainstorming session. Communicate a clear plan of action and then follow up on a regular cadence to make sure everyone is one track.

Whether building a company, overseeing a team, or managing a project, leadership gives us plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. Some of these mistakes are inevitable. Avoiding Fremont’s cardinal sin, however, is within our control, so long as we stay close to the action.