What Only You Can Do

We always hear the phrase “someone should do that.”

Here’s another one: “That (fill in the blank) needs attention.”

And even better: “We as leaders need to…”

When I was starting out in all this, I thought that ‘someone’ always needed to be me. Things requiring attention needed, obviously, my attention. And hey, I wanted to be a leader as much as the next guy, so logically, I did what we as leaders needed to do. Even as I continued upwards, I kept trying to reach all the way down to the bottom to affect as much as I could throughout the organization. And what happened after a while? I exhausted myself.

Sooner or later, I had to stop reaching down into the weeds. It wasn’t because I didn’t care, I just needed to conserve my energy. To this day, I still see people who talk about all the programs they own, how they’re running this and managing that, and how they’re still reaching down to the very bottom of the chain of command. I just don’t do that anymore, but not because I can’t. I can affect any level, poke at just about any program I want, and micromanage anything I see fit. I just don’t think it’s right for the organization.

So, for two reasons, I stay out of the weeds. The first one, the easiest to understand, is that I have people below me who need to learn how to manage programs just like I did. Unless the train is coming completely off the tracks, I can let them learn through some challenges and come to their own decisions. I don’t change much unless I really need to or the people running those programs need help making changes they can maintain.

I’m successful because someone saw potential in me, gave me an opportunity, and let me figure the rest out myself. I owe it to my people to let them learn some of the hard parts, like communicating with the boss, finding answers, and resolving conflict, all by themselves.

Here’s the harder part to explain: I often tell people to invest no more emotional energy in one issue or another, mostly because there’s nothing they can do about it. No matter how much they want to fight the good fight, it’s not something they can resolve, or it’s not something they should exhaust themselves over.

I have to tell myself something similar, to invest no more energy because someone else can. I don’t do those things the people below me can because there are things that only I can do, and I need to save my energy for those.

I remember my first sea tour, when I would run myself ragged trying to get things done, usually relying on other people to get to me so I could stick them with all sorts of needles and such. I’d call, email, and even send people all over the ship to get the stragglers in their own workspaces, but I still couldn’t find everyone. Even if every person was no more than a thousand feet away from where I was standing, they had some natural talent to not be where I thought they belonged.

Near the end of the month, I’d drag myself into my boss’s office and complain about how hard it was to get everyone. After listening to me for a few minutes and glancing at the spreadsheet, he’d pick up the phone, mention some names on my list to someone, and then… “They’ll be here in ten minutes.”

That’s it? I busted my tail for weeks, and all he had to do was pick up the magic phone? How do I get one of those?

I owe a lot of my success to the lessons I learned during that time. In this case, it was that I’d done all I could, but there were some things I couldn’t accomplish no matter how hard I tried. I could get 95% of the work done, but without the magic phone and the connections, I’d go no further.

Today, I have my own magic phone. There are some conversations that only I can have, and tables that I’m the only enlisted person sitting at. I’m not saying it to sound special, but I’m very aware of those rooms that only I am in, calls only I can make, and the hands only I can shake when someone else has done all he or she can. These are where I need to focus my energy, most if it mental and emotional, on decisions I can hopefully affect for the better. If I let myself get drawn into every issue, I won’t have any energy left to fight the good fights that others can’t.

It’s natural to see things that need doing and want to do them, but it’s best to figure out first which ones specifically need you to handle them. For the rest, delegate if you can.

– How much of your day is devoted to things that only you can do?

– By your skill sets or position, are there tasks that only you can perform?

– Is there equipment that only you know how to fix, or a process that you understand better than anyone else?

– If you’re in a leadership or management position, are there meetings where you’re the only representative for your people or community?

– Once you’ve identified those tasks that don’t need to be done by you, who is the right person to give them to?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.