Posts Tagged ‘goal’

Mission or Goal

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, the main character, Colonel Nicholson, is a prisoner of war in Burma who leads his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captors. Nicholson is an officer of high integrity, dedicated to excellence, a great leader of people - and thus well trained to complete any mission that he is given.

So he skillfully inspires his men to build a near-perfect bridge. By the film’s end, he finds himself in the painful position of defending the bridge from attack by fellow British officers who want to destroy it - to prevent Japanese trains from using it.

There’s a chilling moment of realization, right before the bridge is detonated, when Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) utters the famous line, “What have I done?” He was so focused on his goal - building the bridge - that he forgot his larger mission - winning the war!

That is goal obsession, which is a subset of wanting to win too much. It rears its ugly head in many ways. In its broadest form, it’s the force at play when we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that, like Colonel Nicholson, we do it at the expense of a larger mission.

It’s one of those paradoxical traits that are usually the sources of our success, but taken too far can become blatant causes of failure. You see this when people become fixated on the wrong goals. Given their history of success, they end up achieving a result that does more damage than good to their organizations, their families, and themselves.

The canyons of Wall Street are littered with victims of goal obsession. I asked one hard-driving deal maker, “Mike, why do you work all of the time?” He replied, “Why do you think? Do you think I love this place? I am working so hard because I want to make a lot of money!”

I continued my inquiry, “Do you really need this much money?”

“I do now,” Mike grimaced. “I just got divorced for the third time. With three alimony checks every month, I am almost broke.”

“Why do you keep getting divorced?” I asked.

The answer came out as a sad sigh. “All three wives kept complaining that I worked all the time. They have no idea how hard it is to make this much money!”

This sort of classic goal obsession would be laughable if the irony — or more accurately, the failure to appreciate the irony — weren’t so painful.

One of the most ironic examples of goal obsession was the “Good Samaritan” research done by Darley and Batson at Princeton in 1973. In this widely referenced study, a group of theology students was told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan.

As part of the research, some of these students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. Along their route across campus, Darley and Batson had hired an actor to play the role of a victim who was coughing and suffering.

Ninety percent of the “late” students in Princeton Theology Seminary ignored the needs of the suffering person in their haste to get across campus. As the study reports, “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!”

What’s happening here? Goal obsession clouded their judgment. They were under time pressure. They were in a hurry. They had deadlines. They were going to do something that they thought was important. Other people were depending on them. And in that hothouse of circumstances, their goals got warped. After all, when people committed to hitting their targets pick the wrong one — when they focus on the bridge and not the war — somebody may end up getting hurt.

Try this. It’s simple, but not easy.

Step back, take a breath, and look around.

Survey the conditions that are making you obsessed with the wrong goals.

Remember that time and deadline pressures come with being a leader. We confront them every minute of every day. They do not go away.

This makes it all the more important to reflect upon our work, match it up against the life we want to live, and consider, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing this?”

Ask yourself, “Am I achieving a task and forgetting my organization’s mission? Am I making money to support my family — and forgetting the family that I am trying to support?”

After all this effort and display of professional prowess, you don’t want to find yourself at a dead end, asking, “What have I done?”

Life is good.


Why We Don’t Do What We Say

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

What happens after that terrific seminar or planning session? Does everything go back to business as usual, or does everyone apply the best of what they learned?

A few years ago, I taught a series of one-day courses for the top 2,000 leaders at one of the world’s most admired companies.

As part of the program, each executive received confidential 360-degree feedback. I asked all of the participants to use that feedback to pick one or two areas for personal improvement, talk with their coworkers about what they were going to change, and ask for suggestions on how they could become more effective leaders. Then they were asked to follow up with co-workers by having short ongoing dialogues to help ensure that this process led to a positive, long-term change in their leadership behavior.

In confidential surveys after the course, almost all of the participants enthusiastically agreed that they were going to do what they were asked to do. A year later, almost 70% of the leaders actually did something related to their commitments. About 30% did absolutely nothing. The good news for the 70% was that their co-workers reported that they had become more effective leaders. As for the 30% who did nothing - well, at least they weren’t seen as getting worse! I suppose that qualifies as good news too. But the do-nothings raise an interesting question.

I have had the opportunity to follow up with the leaders in the 30% category and ask them why they didn’t do what they said they would do. Their answers seldom have anything to do with ethics or integrity. In spite of recent examples of terrible ethics violations, the huge majority of leaders I meet are highly ethical people. They are not liars or phonies. They truly believed that they should change and that this was the “right thing to do.” Their answers usually don’t have anything to do with lack of intelligence or understanding either. They are all very bright people. They not only agreed with what they committed to do, but they also understood what to do and how to do it.

So why didn’t these leaders do what they said they were going to do? Why do we often fail to do what we know we should do?

The answer can be explained by something they tell themselves. It’s something I have told myself for years. I am going to predict that you have told yourself the same thing - maybe often, maybe for years. You may be getting a little skeptical right now. You’re probably thinking, “This guy doesn’t know my mind. What is he talking about?” We will see how accurate my guess is.

The interior monologue sounds something like this. “You know, I am incredibly busy right now. In fact, I feel about as busy today as I have ever felt in my entire life. To be honest, I just feel constantly overcommitted. To be really honest, given what is going on at work and at home, sometimes my life feels a little out of control. But, you see, I am working on some very unique and special challenges right now. I think that the worst will be over in four or five months. After that, I am going to take a couple of weeks off and get organized. I am going to start working on my personal development. Then I am going to start spending more time with my family. I’ll start exercising and eating right. When I do, everything is going to be different - and it won’t be crazy anymore.”

Have you ever told yourself something like that? I have, and so have most of the leaders whom I meet every week. Many of us have been saying this to ourselves for years.

That’s why we haven’t been doing what we know we should be doing. We are waiting until life isn’t crazy. We are waiting until we “have some time.” We are waiting for a day that may never appear.

I have learned a hard lesson trying to help real leaders change real behavior in the real world. There is no “two or three weeks.” Things don’t calm down or slow down. Look at the trend line. There is a good chance that tomorrow is going to be even crazier than today.

So here’s my suggestion. Ask yourself two very hard questions.

First, what change is going to make the biggest, positive difference? And second, what am I willing to change now? Not next week, not next month, not when everything starts to make sense. Now.

Don’t worry so much about everything else.

Just change that.

Life is good.


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