I’ll be honest. I hate weeds. You have no idea how much time I’ve spent over the years trying to rid my yard of those pesky things. But to no avail- all the hand picking, all the chemicals, all the cussing. Nothing has been a long-term solution. They always come back and they seem to come back with great vengeance.
You know, weeds are not only a problem for our yards. They can also be a problem at work. In fact I think one of the greatest challenges facing leaders of all types is this: how do we get out of the weeds?
So what are the weeds? Well, weeds are on the ground right? Being stuck in the weeds is when we fail to think on a higher level and we succumb to working as fast and as hard as we can to get one or two items checked off our list. When we run into a little fire and put it out, and then run to another little fire and put it out, and continue this trend- then you know you're in the weeds. And you know what? Every leader has to spend some time in the weeds, but if you spend the majority of your time there, then you’re failing to make the most important contribution you can make to your organization.
You see, I believe to effectively lead our nonprofits and ministries as leaders, we’ve got to get more altitude. Altitude is simply perspective. And it’s something you can’t get when you’re down on ground level and focused on dealing with crisis after crisis, detail after detail.
I remember years ago when I was leading a large, fast-growing nonprofit we were in a season where we all seemed to be stressed. It’s interesting, but when most leaders get stressed, they tend to dive into the weeds. It actually feels somewhat safe and comfortable there. And it’s there that we feel like we have the most job safety.
So I had retreated. I was deep into the weeds and simply had my head down crossing one thing after another off my list. One day, a colleague of mine walked into the office and asked a question. They said, “Pete, have you thought at all about what direction you might want us to go this next year with our Merry Music City event?” Now keep in mind, it was March. We were months and months away from the event and honestly, I was just praying I was going to survive that week. I kept my composure with that colleague but I was boiling inside. How in the world could anyone expect me to cast vision about something that was almost a year away, when I couldn’t even see how we were going to survive the next two weeks? I was lost in the details. I was on the ground surrounded by weeds, when I actaully needed to be at 30,000 feet.
I believe that the biggest solutions and most out-of-the-box ideas come when we get altitude. But we rarely drift toward altitude. Nope, in fact what often gets reinforced in work culture is just: make the next phone call, send the next email, attend the next meeting, cross off the next box, put out the next fire around the corner. We spend most of our work day in the weeds, where we’re close to the ground, feel tiny, can only see a few inches in front of us and have lost the bigger picture.
So how do we escape the weeds and get into high altitude thinking? Here’s a few suggestions:
1. Schedule time for email.
Few things drag us into the weeds faster and with more force than email. If you want to assure you spend little, if any, time thinking at higher altitude then just leave your email on all day. But if you want to get serious about visionary leadership, then you should wisely schedule several times a day where you’ll sign into email so you can respond and take action on the few things in the weeds that do need your attention. Also, leaders: do you know what you’ll do for your team by not being available each and every second? You’ll teach them to think for themselves and take initiative. Sometimes the best response you can give a team members question is simply, “what do you think?”. Answering every question they bring to you not only teaches them to regularly drag you down into the weeds but, it also creates dependent team members who never really grow or learn to think on their own.
2. Reorganize your to-do list
I think most people have a to-do list of some kind on most days. They generally make the to-do list as they think of different things they need to do. Rarely is it prioritized correctly. Start by asking what’s important at work, not what’s in front of your face. What do you want to achieve this year or this month? Put those things at the top of the list and put the “block and tackle” stuff at the bottom. Truth is, most of us are more creative, productive and energetic in the morning and we see that wane throughout the day. Let’s put our best to high-altitude thinking where it can be most utilized.
3. Schedule at least a couple hours per week for high-altitude thinking.
I know this is a lot to ask for some of you, but I think it’s crucial. You need a good 2-4 hours of uninterrupted high-altitude thinking a week. And for most of us, this can’t happen in our office. We need to get out (if you’re not the boss, you might want to get permission first). Find a coffee shop, if people bring out your creativity. Find a park, if nature is your thing. Walk around an art gallery, if that gets your senses fired up. I know this might not lead to the immediate rewards and pats on the back that you get from being in the weeds and putting out fires but your organization, whether they realize it or not, desperately needs you to intentionally spend times in high altitudes.
That next innovative idea or inventive solution to the problem that’s haunting your organization isn’t going to come by ticking items off your list. You've gotta get higher. You've gotta get altitude. You’ve got to get out of the never-ending checklist that exists in the weeds, and get altitude where you’ll make your most important contribution.
PS. I’m going to help you nonprofit leaders who are stuck in the weeds today. Believe it or not, Giving Tuesday is right around the corner. In fact, someone is about to knock on your door and ask you what you guys are going to do this year for it. So surprise them by getting ahead. Here’s a Giving Tuesday download to get you started. Hope it’s helpful.