The Most Important One: Tolstoy and Covey on Focus

One of my son’s favorite books is The Three Questions (Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy).

The story takes a child-friendly adventure through Tolstoy’s famous questions:

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to do?

When is the best time to do things?

The main idea– give all of your attention to the present scene and players, and do everything you can to contribute.

The most important one, is the one you are with… and the right thing to do, is what he most needs…. and the best time to do it is now.

“The most necessary man is he with whom you are.”
~Leo Tolstoy

I have been struck by how much these questions resonate with Seb (age 6). When it is just the 2 of us playing or talking, he will stop the action and ask with a big smile, “who is the most important one?” Or, when he wants to do something fun he will remind me, “when is the best time to do things?”

People need undivided attention. They want to be listened to, and really heard. They need to know that they are the most important one– at least in that moment. This is at the core of my values as a leader, and at the same time, it is a constant struggle to put into practice. I don’t have this handled.

It is easy to think we are doing it all– that we’re handling the juggling act with grace, and that were giving folks what they need. There is so much that is urgent, and coming in through so many channels. I am constantly picking up the phone, while on a conference call, and have text messages beeping in. And yet, I try to convince myself that I am “listening” to all 4 conversations: the conference call, the new caller, the urgent texter, and the conflicted conversations in my brain. I am not fooling any of us.

If you are a newer leader who has not yet stumbled on the classic work of Stephen Covey, the great leadership writer, whose life we celebrate this week, I would start there. Covey’s First Things First, has some solid principles that still guide my work today, and is amongst my most frequently gifted books. I also find value in outside practices that help me to clear my brain and let me approach the tougher situations with a bit more clarity: prayer, yoga, and exercise seem to work for me. Many also find deep power in meditation.

Is the “most important one” always the one you are with? Of course not. Sometimes, you must switch gears. But, it is an awfully good place to start.

How to Pick the Right Big Goal

Want more success and fun for your team? Try picking one BIG goal.

When looking to make a difference for the business, I always look for the “one big goal” that we can accomplish that will really make an impact. As Covey would say, what is your most “Wildly Important Goal”?  What will be dramatically different (better) after our team is done with it? What needs to be transformed?

Of course, organizations are complex and it’s impossible to have a singular focus. However, I have found that planning for one BIG success, along with one or two other related goals, creates a clear path that is easy to follow. You will know if you have accomplished this if years later, people are still talking about the contribution that team made.

4 Ways to Grow Your Goal

Pick the Right BIG Goal

  • What does the business need most?
  • What are others struggling to accomplish?
  • What do people think can’t be done?
  • What is this team best positioned to do?
  • Are you passionately personally committed to this?

Gain Alignment

  • Do your boss and other key stakeholders see this as vital (even if they don’t think it is doable)
  • Are at least a few strong and energetic people on your team aligned (I have found in real turnaround situations, it usually takes some time to get everyone there)
  • Develop a zealous engagement and communication plan
  • Reinforce the vision non-stop (I have been accused of being a “maniac” about the vision)
  • Create imagery to align with the goal (use it to tie everything together)

Engage the Team

  • Involve everyone in the planning and execution
  • Involve them more
  • Break the problem down into manageable pieces, celebrate every milestone
  • Celebrate the big contributors, have them teach others
  • Learn from your skeptics, that bring them in to help
  • Celebrate the skeptic turnaround stories
  • Communicate constantly on the subject

Recognize Every Little Win

  • Create a rally cry, celebrate every contribution and link it to the bigger picture
  • Pay attention to what is working everywhere you go
  • Make success easy to notice, celebrate loudly and everywhere
  • Stay the course

In a complicated world we must do many things well. We must be “AND” leaders. I have also found that it is much more fun to also pick the home run in advance and leave nothing on the field when playing toward that goal.