Successful Leadership is a Lot Like Eating an Elephant

Leaders are often faced with overwhelming tasks that seem like trying to eat an elephant. The SECRET to leadership success in those instances is to apply "Kaizen" with "The Law of the Slight Edge!" "Kaizen" is a Japanese term that means the process of continuous, ongoing, small, steady incremental improvements. It's the magic of taking something good and making it great. "The Law of the Slight Edge" is: You don't have to be twice as good to be twice as successful. All it takes to gain the edge is to improve just 1% in many areas (maybe even 100) rather than to try to improve 100% in just one area. Smart leaders approach challenges that way.

Have you ever seen a photo finish horse race? How far is the first horse ahead of the second place finisher? It could be less than an inch. Yet, the prize money to the owner can be twice as much. In one example the first place horse returned $300,000 to its owner, whereas the second place horse returned $175,000. That's almost twice the return for less than a one inch edge!

The question of any daunting leadership challenge facing you, no matter what your field or position is, "What now?" This is especially true when you are faced with a massive assignment that requires exemplary leadership skills. It may seem like trying to eat an elephant. So, how do you dine on an elephant? Answer: with continuous, small, incremental bites.

I don't personally know of anyone who was suddenly thrust into a major leadership role, no matter what their position from first time supervisor to CEO to entrepreneur about to embark upon a challenging start-up, who didn't inwardly feel like "What now?"

My first experience was as a twenty-something young naval officer given my first major shipboard assignment. I was suddenly the fearless leader of a deck division in charge of the lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness of 30 men. Add to that the responsibility for millions of dollars of ship's boats, guns and machinery. My reaction (as 60 eyeballs stared at me) was, "What now?"

That has always been my response many years and numerous major leadership situations later. I've dined on many elephants and so will you. Learn how now and avoid the indigestion that plagues so many other would be leaders. Avoid trying to forge ahead in one fell swoop without taking it step by step to digest the challenge.

No matter your position, whenever you are selected for a challenging assignment or a new venture you are about to start, you will feel the pressure. That's normal. It's how you approach it that counts and determines your leadership abilities. There's no magic formula, but there is a tried and true approach. Look at it as though you're about to eat an elephant. Daunting, but you can do it by practicing "Kaizen" and put into motion the "Law of the Slight Edge." Start by taking one bite at a time staying ahead of the curve with continuous, small, deliberate, incremental improvements.

People and organizations that follow the process of continuous, steady, ongoing improvement across the board in small incremental steps will succeed. You too will succeed as a leader by adopting and adapting this concept.

You will outdistance those who swiftly attempt to take one area and focus their entire attention on that one area at the expense of all the others. Focus first on the big picture and then prioritize the details of what it will take, in a step by step manner, to accomplish the goal.

Teddy Roosevelt advised that the race goes not to the swift but to those who persevere. One way to persevere is to seek the advice of those who have been there, done that. Read their articles and books. Select those tips and techniques that will help you make small incremental improvements to gain the edge.

In the last Olympic 50 meter freestyle swimming event the number one swimmer was only tenths of a second ahead of the number four. Yet, that's all it took to get the gold. What did number four get, other than glory?

How did the gold winner do it? He focused on the race mentally and then practiced becoming adept at all the small incremental details of what it would take to win including: stroke, hand position, kick, breathing, flip-turn, start position and even the pre-dive splash of water to acclimate to the pool temperature, to name just a few areas. Had he focused all attention on training just for the start, to possibly gain a slight advantage at first, would certainly have lost to those who focused on improving, even ever so slightly, all the other areas of swimming.

In leadership, as well as in life, that slight edge, gained by the perseverance of continually making small incremental improvements, is all it takes to eat the elephant.


John Nicholas speaks from the trenches as an author, speaker, trainer, former U.S. Navy officer, corporate executive and entrepreneur. Over a 25 year period, as a "corporate refugee" wanting to run his own businesses, started five companies including furniture manufacturing, real estate investment and development and business consulting. He coauthored the book, "You're a Leader- Now What? Knowing What to do Next" (listed on Amazon). As a mentor his message is, "Technical proficiency is not enoug...

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