Not too long ago, I worked for one of those leaders and mentors that we all dream of having. He would push my limits of leadership and knew how to ensure my areas of weakness were being developed. He gave me just the right amount of leash to let me make tough decisions, but not too much that I could bury myself too deep. He taught me so many lessons openly and many that I am just realizing today as the seeds he had planted are beginning to germinate.

After a conversation with a friend about some issues he is having, I offered some advice. Awhile later I was trying to think about where that nugget came from and I realized it was one of those seeds he planted years ago. My friend was telling me about some of the big fires he has been putting out in his organization and feels like he is never getting ahead. He actually related it to running on a treadmill where he is constantly expending energy, but not actually getting anywhere. I have had this feeling many times and have discovered I was placing all of my focus into these big problems and not paying attention to the little issues of today that would become the major issues of tomorrow.

We get into these defensive modes and begin reacting to everything instead of becoming proactive and heading them off at the pass. My old boss is a very tough guy whom I had to brief on the status of his beloved cargo aircraft and he was brutal with his questions and demands. He was charged with the safe maintenance and operations of a large fleet with a global impact so this was understood. Over time I began to realize the things he would hone in on and would make sure I exhausted every resource and prepared for every conceivable question. This strategy worked very well for me and seldom was I caught off guard. Until he did one of those things only a great leader can do; he found the kink in my armor and taught me how to strengthen it.

One such brief, we had an aircraft that was broken and there was lots of buffoonery that ensued before, during and after the repair. I was ready for his questions about this big issue. However, he breezed right over this aircraft and asked me about a seemingly insignificant detail on a mission that left on-time. There was a hiccup in the sequence, but the time was recovered in other areas. I had known next to nothing about this detail.

The lesson was to not only focus on the big things that everyone can see. Not to worry about explaining away the past. Yes, those answers are needed and we need to respond to them; however, if we are only reacting to issues, we will never grow as an organization. We also need to actively seek out the small hiccups so we can work them before there is a major issue.

It is the old 80/20 rule where we spend 80% of our time on 20% of the people, aircraft, etc. The big shiny problems have a way of grabbing the attention of our bosses and thus become our priorities. We need to get ahead of these issues by spending whatever time and energy we have in reserve to see where the next fire is going to start. Eventually, you can get ahead of a lot of the problems and are able to breathe and look to the future more clearly. By investing in this top 20%, we will be effective and have success; however, when we find ways to elevate the other 80%, we will find significance.