Justin is the father of 5 kids and serves on the high council in the Kirtland, Ohio Stake. He works in business development for a medical device design firm in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a regular listener of the Leading Saints podcast. When it is essential, he finds time to write his thoughts on his blog.
Growing up, my family was not a “camping family.” I remember our first family camping trip. We were living in Michigan while my dad was doing his residency. I was 8 years old, my other brother was 4, and my youngest brother was a baby at the time. My dad had borrowed a tent and, being busy, had the owner show him how to take the tent down. My memory of the campground is fuzzy, but I do remember it being near a lake.. We arrived at close to 6:00 or 7:00 and my dad started trying to get the tent up. Well, he learned well how to take the tent down, but he couldn’t figure out how to get it set up. It started to get dark, so he grabbed the lantern and starts to try to light it. Somehow, in lighting the lantern, the lantern bags explode and the glass cracks. Now, our new lantern doesn’t work. Eventually, my dad found someone to help put the tent up, we got our sleeping bags in the tent, and we fell asleep. In the middle of the night, the baby woke up, and my mom decided to feed the baby in the car. After finishing, she and the baby re-entered the tent and, perhaps overwhelmed with everything she had done in packing and preparing for the trip and being low on sleep, she realized she forgot something—the keys. In the locked car! So, we woke up in the morning freezing cold. Fortunately for us, we brought sweaters and coats. In the car. And we had a scrumptious breakfast too. All in the car! My dad walked several miles to the ranger station (this was before cell phones), and they called a locksmith. An hour or two later, a locksmith showed up, took a look at the car, and said, “Ok, now I know what I’ll need, I’ll be back in an hour or so.” What?! Several hours later, the locksmith returned. At that point, I don’t remember if we even bothered to make breakfast, or if we just jumped back in the car and ended our ill-fated first and last family camping trip. We look back on this and laugh, but I think both my parents were a more than a bit overwhelmed with how everything went wrong on this trip.
Whether trying to lead a family as a parent, or to lead a team at work, or to lead in our church calling, the demands that we put on ourselves and others place on us and on our time, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel overburdened. My wife recently lamented to me, “It’s just so depressing. I clean the house, and the next day it looks like this! It never stays clean. Why bother?” Sometimes, life can feel like some endless Sisyphean task where we must keep pushing a boulder up a hill only to get worn out and then watch it roll back down and have to do it all over and over again.
Overwhelmed. The etymology of the word overwhelm is from the Middle English word whelmen which means to turn upside, to overthrow, to submerge completely, and the word may have originally been used to describe a boat being overwhelmed by large waves. I don’t know much about naval navigation, but I do know that a boat is better off when its bow is aligned perpendicular to oncoming waves than parallel to them.
So often we hear pleas to magnify our calling, to be anxiously engaged, to put our shoulder to the wheel and push along. While this is often needed and good, I also believe that equally as often the solution to being a better parent, being a better leader, or being better in our callings is to do less rather than more.
How to Establish a Less is More Leadership Style
1. Establishing a vision or a goal – Begin with the End in Mind.
Larry Gelwix was a Rugby coach in Highland Utah. He has an incredible record: 419 wins and 10 losses. When he was asked how he did it he said, “We WIN. W-I-N. What’s Important Now?” He taught his players to always ask What’s Important Now? When you’ve made a mistake on that last play, what’s important now? Get over it, learn from it, and do your best. Make decisions now that support what you want in the future. This is leadership. A great leader has vision. Remember Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A great leader knows where she and the organization she is leading wants to get to. She has a goal. She has, as Stephen R. Covey taught in his classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, begun with the end in mind.
The trick is that the leader’s job now is to ask the following question, “What will be important a year from now? 5 years from now? 10 years from now?” And then based on those answers and that vision, answer the question “What is important that the organization do now in order to get there by then?” Covey placed the answers to the second question in the realm of Manager. The leader is the person who climbs the tree and shouts the directions to the workers and managers below who direct the workers as efficiently as possible in chopping their way through the jungle. However, in leadership today, our roles likely encompass both leader as well as manager. If the leader’s job is to have the vision or the goal and have the end in mind, then the manager has the responsibility to know what to put first—and by extension—what to put last or leave out.
This, of course, begs the question of how do I decide what to put first? Or what is important now that will impact where I want to be in the future?
2. Be Essentialist Leader
In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown, an LDS bishop in Silicon Valley, teaches that being an essentialist is just that: focusing only on the essential. He explains that a non-essentialist tries to be “All things to All People” and thinks, “It’s all important,” and asks, “How can I fit it all in?” While an essentialist goes for “Less but better,” and thinks, “Only a few things really matter.” Instead of asking how to fit it all in, an essentialist considers, “What are the tradeoffs? What is essential?” The non-essentialist lives a life of the undisciplined pursuit of more, while the essentialist lives a life of the disciplined pursuit of less but better. A non-essentialist, like the thorns that choke out the seed in the parable of the sower, is the story of the person that is caught up in the thick of thin things. A non-essentialist will say yes to people without really thinking and reacts to the most urgent thing, while an essentialist pauses to discern what really matters and will say no to everything except the essential.
3. Let off the brakes
In his educational novel on constraint management, The Goal, Eliyahu Goldratt, gives the story of Herbie’s scout troop. Herbie is slow, plump, and out-of-shape. He also has the troop’s mess kits and some sodas in his pack. As the troop heads out on the hike, one of the boys leads out, and Alex Rogo, a plant manager who is leading the troop, tells the boys to stick together. However, Herbie’s slowness just separates him and Alex, who’s bringing up the rear, from the rest of the pack. Soon, Alex can’t see the boy walking in the front. He yells to the front to stop. After several attempts at reorganizing the line, Alex eventually realizes that the way to keep the troop moving as fast as possible and without large gaps forming in their ranks is to have Herbie lead and do everything he can to make Herbie go faster—like lightening Herbie’s pack! The idea here is to remove the brakes on what is constraining the throughput of the system. This idea applied to leadership is to remove the constraints to our progress—focus on letting off the brakes first rather than just pushing harder on the gas pedal. The most effective action to take may be to refrain from harmful actions that we are taking. In other words, doing less of the wrong things, can actually help us do more of the right ones.
4. Recognize Trade-offs and Lead Like a Hedgehog
However, stopping something that we recognize as holding us back is often easier than making decisions that require us to choose between two good things. Decisions are tradeoffs. Choosing what matters most often involves cutting other things out. Take the word decide. The root word of decide is the Latin cis or -cid/cide meaning to “cut” or “kill”. “A decision, for instance, is a ‘cutting off’ of all possibilities except for one. Hence, if you are decisive you have ‘killed’ all other options.”
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes that one of the principles embodied by companies that made the transition from just a good company to a truly great company is the concept of finding their hedgehog principle—choosing to focus on one good thing at which they could truly excel or become the best in the world at. He relates that a hedgehog is not fast or strong or good at hiding, but it is excellent at curling up into a spiny ball, and when in that prickly ball predators have no desire to mess with it! This one capability of the hedgehog has helped it survive and be a successful animal species. Collins argues that too many companies focus on trying to do a whole bunch of things well rather than differentiating themselves as the best in the world in one hedgehog-like aspect. When focusing in and zooming in on one thing, the periphery becomes less focused or recedes from view. Doing less allows this focus to happen! It is easier to differentiate and make an impact when one is an inch wide and a mile deep than it is to be a mile wide and only an inch deep.
5. Optimize Your State of Flow
This leads me to the concept of flow. Trying to do too many things at once impacts our ability to focus our attention completely on one thing and enter a state of “flow” or optimal performance. Most people have at one time or another experienced what it is to be in a state of flow. Flow has been described as “being in the zone.” Having grown up playing the video game NBA Jam, it’s when your player has become “on fire” and everything he shoots seems to go in. In a state of flow, a person loses track of time and self such that what feels like just a moment has actually been several hours. In a state of flow, one’s productivity increases dramatically as well. The more that a person enters into a state of flow at work, the more likely that person is to find satisfaction in his work. In fact, the harm of all of our notifications from email or on our phone is the diversion of our attention and the risk of that interruption keeping us from entering a flow state.
An example of implementing or optimizing for flow as a leader might be a renewed focus on the basic fundamentals. The famous football coach Vince Lombardi was said to take his team at the beginning of each season and hold up a football and begin by saying, “Gentleman, this is a football….” Bill Clinton adopted the KISS slogan for his campaign: Keep It Simple, Stupid. President Uchtdorf recently shared the ironic story of an overwhelmed Relief Society instructor who stayed up all night sewing a quilt with the admonition: “Simplify!” All of these are principles of the Less is More.
6. Putting God First
As a leader, as a parent, or just in your calling, there are so many of us who feel overwhelmed, who perhaps feel like my parents must have during that ill-fated camping trip–they can’t get the tents in their lives to set up, perhaps the lanterns are exploding, and the keys with all the answers are locked away. Maybe you feel a bit like God is acting like that locksmith who seemingly took his dandy time. I testify that by listening to the Spirit we can know what to cut out in order to focus on the essential. There is but one thing that is needful — to align the heading of our lives with the Gospel of Jesus Christ–by doing this we will be able to breast the waves and storms of life and not be overwhelmed. As Ezra Taft Benson said, “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives.” and as Neal A. Maxwell taught, “In the end, if you have not chosen Christ, it will not matter what you have chosen.”