Little Things Make a Big Difference

Image courtesy of [nattavut] /

Image courtesy of nattavut /

Over a decade ago, Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic book, The Tipping Point, reminded us of this basic life truth. In almost every area of life, little things do make a big difference. We are fortunate to have people in our life who tell us, “I’m easy to please.”  Blessed is the person who has a significant other who says, “It doesn’t take much to make me happy.” Blessed are the leaders who pay attention to the little things that make followers want to follow them. We only get to lead people as far as they choose.

I was on a commercial flight when a man and his companion, who I assume was his wife, sat in the two seats next to me. I always try to get a window seat and make it a habit to “unintentionally” eavesdrop on my seat mates. (This gives me great inspiration for blog posts.) It turns out that he was in the medical field. He said to his wife, “The other day one of my employees, Bob, asked me for a pair of disposable gloves. It was no big deal. I gave him a pair of new disposable gloves. The next day, he came back asking for another pair. I gave him the whole box. Do you know he was thrilled?  It’s amazing how doing the little things can make people happy.” My seatmate is right about that.

We can get caught up on the idea that leadership is all about the big things. The huge event. The vision casting.  The ramping people up to charge the hill. The motivating them to direct their energy to achieve our goals. Yes, leadership involves those things but sometimes it’s the little things that go a long way.

Suppose the man on the plane said to Bob, “I’m going to put in a standing order for gloves for you. You’ll never have to worry about being without gloves again.” It would have made even more of a difference in Bob’s attitude and his ability to do his job.

This is where we have the opportunity to be creative. Every follower is unique. One test of leadership is figuring out what small act we can do to make a difference for our team members. Sometimes it’s just calling a person by name. Sometimes it’s just asking how their weekend was. Sometimes it’s just sharing a cup of coffee with them. Sometimes it’s just a snack break. Sometimes it’s just a fun diversion that breaks the routine. Sometimes it’s just a hand-written thank you note. Whatever the “just a…” is for our followers, once we find it, they will be more willing to follow us.

Make it easier for people to follow us so that we can lead them where we want them to go.

How easy is it for people to follow us?

Are we missing the little things because we’re too focused on the big things?

What simple solutions are right in front of us?

What’s our box of gloves?

A Tale of Two Bosses

hot-air-balloon-compressedA couple summers ago, the movie Horrible Bosses was a financial and critical success at the box office. It was a dark comedy that portrayed three bosses who took their “boss-ness” to the extreme. It exceeded financial expectations in part because so many people could relate to it. Most of us have had a boss that has “reached the level of their incompetence” (The Peter Principle).  We’ve had our moments when we’ve thought, “My life would be easier if my boss was not in it.” I’ve had a few of those bosses and I’ve also been fortunate to work with some excellent bosses. I’ve noticed one big difference between the two.

I’ve worked in entry level jobs where both bosses were micro managers who watched over my work and knew exactly what I was doing and when I was doing it. One boss I enjoyed working with, the other I didn’t. What was the difference, since both were micro managers?

My horrible boss had been with the company for over two decades and wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. One day a fellow employee stopped by my office to drop off a file folder for me to work on. The second he stepped in the door, the boss appears  looking over his shoulder saying, “What is that file and what are you doing with it?” I was tempted to say at that moment, “It’s the nuclear bomb codes and we’re plotting to set one off at noon.” But I refrained.  By that time, I admit, my attitude was pretty poor.

Lurking and readiness to pounce was my horrible boss’ way of life. So were the lack of clear expectations. I never knew what my target was except when I didn’t reach it. I was chastised for not reaching a goal I didn’t know existed. My one on one meetings with the boss were a laundry list of the areas I was falling short in my performance. I’ve since realized that this approach was part of the boss’ strategy to keep employees off balance so that their days are marked by fear, in the hope that they will fall in line. And for those that did, they became the boss’ favorites.  The day I left the job and the boss was a relief. This boss’ leadership philosophy was, “Your success is my threat.”

My excellent boss was a striking contrast. This boss met with me regularly. My first meeting was a “get to know you” session in which I was listened to as I told my story and background. The boss did the same. We met regularly and sometimes, just met for the purpose of having fun. We played video games and talked life in general. Other times we went over my target and expectations of where I needed to be in my performance. The boss regularly said, “I will do whatever I can to help you get there.” I was publically praised when my goals were met. In that environment, team members willingly helped each other and none were considered favorites. This boss supported me to the next level bosses. The day I left, the boss was visibly sad but wished me well. This boss’ leadership philosophy was, “Your success is my success.”

What was the difference? The emotional security of the leader. Horrible boss was emotionally insecure and ruled by fear. Excellent boss was secure and not afraid of each team member’s success and encouraged it.

Leadership expert, John Maxwell, in his now classic, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership talks about “The Law of Empowerment” in which he says that only secure leaders are able to give power away. “Leading well is not about enriching yourself – it’s about empowering others.” (Page 146). It’s a true counter-intuitive principle that when we give power away and others succeed, we become indispensable to the organization.

As leaders, what is it like to be on our team? If we could hear the thoughts of our team members, what would we find them saying to themselves about our leadership?

Some bosses are horrible because they are so insecure they can’t give power away or stand it when others succeed. The empowering leaders among us give us a boost and help us do our jobs with excellence. That’s the kind of creative leader that makes a positive difference in our lives and in the world. I want to be that kind of leader. And so do you.

What did your empowering bosses do to ensure your success?