I hear a lot of people talk about metrics and bench-marking as though this is beneath them.
“I’m a big picture person,” I hear people say. “I like to set vision and leave it to others to get into the weeds.”
That’s a mistake.
If you keep your eyes to the horizon without having the right dashboard with the right metrics to help you monitor your progress, you may get lost in the big picture.
My grandfather got lost like that because he didn’t like paying attention to details. And it almost killed him.
Grandpa was an enterprising young man. His father was an alcoholic and didn’t treat the family well. Because of this, Grandpa wound up caring for his siblings and blind mother at an early age. With only a third-grade education, his mind was so keen that he went on to invent some amazing things that you might recognize today (another story!).
But Grandpa always flew by the seat of his pants.
Now, this served him well as he grew up to build two multi-million dollar businesses in the 1920’s and 1930’s. But if you have read my column before, you may know that he also lost these two businesses because he found it easy to build a business and run it for awhile, but he couldn’t keep one going in the long run. And this was because he didn’t like to pay attention to details.
The losses were devastating.
After these severe losses, my grandmother then founded and grew a third business with Grandpa. This third business helped them to become very successful, and it not only kept the family afloat, but a lot of other young people had jobs and were able to attend school during the Great Depression because of the Cotton family business.
This success was because Grandma did pay attention to details, and partnering with Grandpa in this way worked well.
However, the story I want to share with you today is an earlier time before Grandpa learned his lesson – when he almost lost his life because he was set on the big picture and didn’t pay attention.
On the way to a huge goal, he neglected to monitor his progress to make sure he was on target to get there.
At the time this occurred, my father was 15 years old, and had just gotten his pilot’s license. Not to be outdone, Grandpa also took flying lessons. One day, Grandpa got into the two-seater and took off for a local town. It was a beautiful day. Big white puffy clouds and deep blue sky. He noticed a particularly large cloud and decided to play through it – emerging from this to enter such vast blue space can be exhilarating. And it was. He did it again with the next cloud. And the next.
After a few more of these and a lovely morning up in the air, he came out of one huge puff of white and suddenly noticed that he was over the ocean.
“I didn’t head for the ocean,” he thought. “Where am I?!” It was then that he looked down – to discover that he was almost out of fuel. He had traveled about an hour into the middle of nowhere (and over a body of water), and knew he would go down quickly if he didn’t find a safe place to land.
Banking steeply as he turned, he prayed that he could make it to some piece of land. What if he landed where no one could find him? What if he crashed? What if…
A few moments later, he miraculously made it back over land and spotted a small town with fields around it. Heading for the fields, he landed just in time before the final sputter of the engine.
Grandpa was shaken. He could have been swimming with fishes if he had continued to allow distraction to rule. And now, he didn’t even know where he was, or how he would get back home. And then, there was the question of the plane that wasn’t his. And so many other thoughts.
All because he hadn’t been monitoring the dashboard.
If he had, he would have seen whether he was on target. He would have been checking his magnetic direction indicator, which is a kind of compass, to make sure he was on course. He would have been watching the altimeter to see how high he was, and his airspeed indicator, so that he could gauge the speed at which he was covering ground.
In short, if Grandpa had been monitoring the dashboard as he enjoyed the view (because you can do both!), he would have known he was veering off course before he got lost. And he certainly would have seen the gas gauge.
A narrow escape and a big lesson.
Leading is like that. Think about it – a pilot has a big- picture view as he or she sits in the cockpit, but is surrounded by the dashboard with all the metrics, as well. The setup is so that the pilot can monitor while surveying the horizon.
The implication is rather obvious – someone leading needs to do both to arrive at the intended destination safely and well.