MANAGING YOURSELF

 

Chapter 15 

MANAGING YOURSELF


It is not enough to have great qualities; we should also have the management of them.

—LA ROCHEFOUCAULD

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower returned from his inaugural parade and entered the White House for the first time as president late in the evening. As he walked into the Executive Mansion, his chief usher handed Eisenhower two letters marked “Confidential and Secret” that had been sent to him earlier in the day. Eisenhower’s reaction was swift: “Never bring me a sealed envelope,” he said firmly. “That’s what I have a staff for.”

   How snobbish, right? Had the office really gone to his head already?

   Not at all. Eisenhower recognized the seemingly insignificant event for what it was: a symptom of a disorganized, dysfunctional organization. Not everything needed to run through him. Who was to say that the envelope was even important? Why hadn’t anyone screened it?

   As president, his first priority in office was organizing the executive branch into a smooth, functioning, and order-driven unit, just like his military units had been—not because he didn’t want to work himself, but because everyone had a job and he trusted and empowered them to do it. As his chief of staff later put it, “The president does the most important things. I do the next most important things.”

   The public image of Eisenhower is of the man playing golf. In reality, he was not someone who ever slacked off, but the leisure time he did have was available because he ran a tight ship. He knew that urgent and important were not synonyms. His job was to set the priorities, to think big picture, and then trust the people beneath him to do the jobs they were hired for.

   Most of us are not the president, or even president of a company, but in moving up the ladder in life, the system and work habits that got us where we are won’t necessarily keep us there. When we’re aspiring or small time, we can be idiosyncratic, we can compensate for disorganization with hard work and a little luck. That’s not going to cut it in the majors. In fact, it’ll sink you if you can’t grow up and organize.

   We can contrast Eisenhower’s system in the White House with the infamous car company created by John DeLorean, when he walked away from GM to produce his brand of futuristic cars. A few decades removed from the company’s spectacular implosion, we can be forgiven for thinking the man was just ahead of his time. In fact, his rise and fall is as timeless a story as there is: Power-hungry narcissist undermines his own vision, and loses millions of dollars of other people’s money in the process.

   DeLorean was convinced that the culture of order and discipline at GM had held brilliant creatives like himself down. When he set out to found his company, he deliberately did everything differently, flouting conventional wisdom and business practices. The result was not the freewheeling, creative sanctuary that DeLorean naively envisioned. It was, instead, an overbearingly political, dysfunctional, and even corrupt organization that collapsed under its own weight, eventually resorting to criminality and fraud, and losses of some $250 million.

   The DeLorean failed both as a car and as a company because it was mismanaged from top to bottom—with an emphasis on the mismanagement at the top, by the top. That is: DeLorean himself was the problem. Compared to Eisenhower, he worked constantly, with very different results.

   As one executive put it, DeLorean “had the ability to recognize a good opportunity but he didn’t know how to make it happen.” Another executive described his management style as “chasing colored balloons”—he was constantly distracted and abandoning one project for another. He was a genius. Sadly, that’s rarely enough.

   Though probably not on purpose, DeLorean created a culture in which ego ran free. Convinced that continued success was simply his by right, he seemed to bristle at concepts like discipline, organization, or strategic planning. Employees were not given enough direction, and then at other times, overwhelmed with trivial instructions. DeLorean couldn’t delegate—except to lackeys whose blind loyalty was prized over competence or skill. On top of all this, he was often late or preoccupied.

   Executives were allowed to work on extracurricular activities on the company dime, encouraged specifically to chase side projects that benefited their boss at the expense of the company. As CEO, DeLorean often bent the truth to investors, fellow officers, and suppliers, and this habit was contagious throughout the company.

   Like many people driven by a demon, DeLorean’s decisions were motivated by everything but what would have been efficient, manageable, or responsible. Instead of improving or fixing GM’s system, it’s as if he threw out order altogether. What ensued was chaos in which no one followed the rules, no one was accountable, and very little got done. The only reason it didn’t collapse immediately was that DeLorean was a master of public relations—a skill that held the whole story together until the first faulty cars came off the assembly line.

   Not surprisingly, the cars were terrible. They didn’t work. Cost per unit was massively over budget. They hadn’t secured enough dealers. They couldn’t deliver cars to the ones they had. The launch was a disaster. DeLorean Motor Company never recovered.

   It turns out that becoming a great leader is difficult. Who knew?!

   DeLorean couldn’t manage himself, and so he had trouble managing others. And so he managed to fail, both himself and the dream.

   Management? That’s the reward for all your creativity and new ideas? Becoming the Man? Yes—in the end, we all face becoming the adult supervision we originally rebelled against. Yet often we react petulantly and prefer to think: Now that I’m in charge, things are going to be different!

   Think about Eisenhower. He was the damn president—the most powerful man in the world. He could have kicked back and done things how he liked. If he was disorganized, people would have just had to deal with it (there have been plenty of those presidents before). Yet he wasn’t. He understood that order and responsibility were what the country needed. And that this far outweighed his own concerns.

   What was so sad about DeLorean is that, like a lot of talented people, his ideas were on point. His car was an exciting innovation. His model could have worked. He had all the assets and the talent. It was his ego and the disorganization that resulted from it that prevented the ingredients from coming together—just as it they do for so many of us.

   As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions. Such is the nature of leadership. This transition requires reevaluating and updating your identity. It requires a certain humility to put aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying parts of your previous job. It means accepting that others might be more qualified or specialized in areas in which you considered yourself competent—or at least their time is better spent on them than yours.

   Yes, it would be more fun to be constantly involved in every tiny matter, and might make us feel important to be the person called to put out fires. The little things are endlessly engaging and often flattering, while the big picture can be hard to discern. It’s not always fun, but it is the job. If you don’t think big picture—because you’re too busy playing “boss man”—who will?

   Of course, there is no “right” system. Sometimes systems are better decentralized. Sometimes they are better in a strict hierarchy. Every project and goal deserves an approach fitted perfectly to what needs to be done. Maybe a creative, relaxed environment makes the most sense for what you’re doing. Maybe you can run your business remotely, or maybe it’s better for everyone to see each other face-to-face.

   What matters is that you learn how to manage yourself and others, before your industry eats you alive. Micromanagers are egotists who can’t manage others and they quickly get overloaded. So do the charismatic visionaries who lose interest when it’s time to execute. Worse yet are those who surround themselves with yes-men or sycophants who clean up their messes and create a bubble in which they can’t even see how disconnected from reality they are.

   Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increasedclarity and purpose. First, setting the top-level goals and priorities of the organization and your life. Then enforcing and observing them. To produce results and only results.

   A fish stinks from the head, is the saying. Well, you’re the head now.





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