Think Big… Act Small

One of my favorite leadership maxims comes from Virgil’s Aeneid X – “audentis fortuna iuvat”.

Ok, so Latin isn’t your thing!

Translation – “Fortune Favors the Bold”

Great leaders think big. Great leaders are bold. They reach for the stars and look for that next big opportunity or challenge around the bend.

More often than not, great leaders also realize that the most glorious victories rest on a string of small, discrete wins.

Let’s face it – when it comes to organizational or personal change – “BHAG’s” – Big Hairy Audacious Goals (thank you, Jim Collins) scare the snot out of most people.

We’re all human, or at least most of us are. We are set in our ways. We like routines. We cherish predictability. Our brains are hardwired for maintaining the status quo.  When confronted with new things or big challenges, many of us experience the “deer in the headlights syndrome”. We either go into brain freeze or we allow inertia to take over our behavior.

Great leaders understand this resistance to change and subscribe to the belief that making small, steady personal or organizational improvements will add up to big, positive changes over time.

Consider this quote from John Wooden – one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time:

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

Tackling big changes sometimes causes the brain to seize up.  Or even worse, it may provoke the “fight or flight” response. Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “Run Away!  Run Away!”

Taking small steps or looking at big change as a series of smaller tasks allows people to circumnavigate fear and inertia. When you break big goals or massive change into smaller, more manageable steps, you minimize the threat of resistance and help people avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Remember the old adage – “How Do You Eat an Elephant? – One small bite at a time”. Instead of working on one 12-week project, break it down into 12 one-week projects.  Then attack each project one small step at a time.

Small victories can build momentum. Momentum sparks motivation.

Getting something small done every day can lead to accomplishing big things.

Success breeds success. Maybe it will take a bit longer – but what would you rather have, small incremental improvements or no change at all?

Change is seldom easy. Setbacks are inevitable. When we fall down – when we fail to achieve our grand ambitions – we get discouraged and often throw in the towel. We tell ourselves, “It’s too hard” or “It’s not worth it” or “I’ll never be successful at…” Small steps help us overcome these setbacks. It’s much easier and far less intimidating to re-start a change effort when you take baby steps toward your goal.

It’s no big deal if you slip up. Everybody does. Just pick yourself up and start again.

Great leadership wisdom can be found in the Tao Te Ching – “Confront the difficult while it is easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”

So, by all means, think big. Have a vision. Be bold.

At the same time, remember what really counts is how well you execute. Great leaders know that you can’t have superb execution unless you focus on nailing the little things.

Here is one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Coming next month: “Ask Small Questions… Get Big Results!”

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