Wobbly Tables: The Little Things Do Matter in Leadership

April 30, 2020

 

It’s 6:30 AM and my father and I are getting coffee at a snack bar on Misawa, Air Base, Japan. Just the day before, I had assumed command of the base, which included this particular establishment. We sit down at a table, and the table is pretty wobbly. Let’s just say that it’s too wobbly for whatever your standard for table wobbliness might be. My father, himself a base commander back in his day, grins widely and says, “Okay Mr. Base Commander, what are you going to do about this wobbly table?”

 

I consider some options. I can get on the floor and try to fix it. I can bring the issue to the staff on shift. I can engage someone higher up the organizational ladder. Or, I can do nothing. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. If I can fix it myself, then it’s done with. If I talk to the 17-year old on shift, that addresses the issue at the lowest level, but may be light on follow-through. If I go higher up the organization, accesses more resources and experience, but sidesteps the front-line leader’s ability to work their issue. 

 

I choose the do-nothing option. I explain to my father that as a brand-new base commander of an operational fighter wing, I want to focus on “bigger” things like combat operations and organizational strategy. I don’t want my first impression to land as, “I am the guy who is about wobbly tables.” So, I did nothing and went on with my day.

 

Six months later, my family and I happen to sit at that same table, and it’s still wobbly. Nothing has changed. In those six months, think of all the customers, staff and other base leaders who experienced that same wobbly table and also chose to do nothing about it. This time, I did something, but I’ll let you guess at the tactic I chose. I wish I would have done it the first time.

 

The moral of the story for me is that, as a leader, when I walk by a problem and choose to do nothing about it, I had better be prepared to live with the problem. If I am relying on someone else to see it and fix it, then that is not a smart bet. The table is one small example, but I have seen many others. As a leader, I have many ways to address a problem…directly, indirectly, fix it myself, ask for help, assign it to someone, etc., and each has its own merits. Sometimes, my best option is to still choose to walk by a problem because I know I can’t fight every battle. 

 

Over the years, though, I’ve become more intentional about addressing small problems as I encounter them, while still trying to keep my primary focus on the bigger issues. I’ve learned that my focus doesn’t have to be an either/or choice—I can actually do both. I more fully appreciate that addressing the small problems not only improves the organization incrementally, but it also models habits of excellence and attention to detail that lead to a stronger organizational culture. Great teams do the small things well, and great leaders demand this of themselves and their team. What are the wobbly tables in your organization?

 

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