vertical_leadership_development_hows_your_to_do_list

Carl Sanders Edwards

I took a deep breath.  I gulped the bitter green tea, squeezing the caffeine placebo as much as I could.  “Two more”, I said to myself hoping for a mantra like boost.  I was exhausted but still needed to do more.   

I wasn’t finishing an adventure race; I wasn’t surviving in the wild.  I wasn’t navigating a night with a new-born.  Nope, it was just my MBA.  It was a Wednesday night, and I was preparing for Thursday’s classes.  Hmmm, that sounds a little dramatic Carl!  Probably, but that was my experience at the time!

We were a couple of months into the program and I was sinking.  Completely overwhelmed and paddling hard to keep my nose above the water.  I wasn’t even the duck moving calmly on the surface while its feet paddle furiously below, I was all arms and legs flailing and splashing wildly while slowly sinking.

That experience has proved to be one of the most developmental I can recall.  Not one bit of this development had anything to do with the content we were learning.  It turns out that our particular MBA school had a philosophy that went.

“If your company grows, or if you get promoted into more and more influential roles (managing people or not), then your ability to do everything you should do, or that you want to do, or even worse, that you know you should do, is insufficient.  Your constraint isn’t what you know, or what to do, but simply how to decide what to do out of a bunch of very important things (meaning some won’t get done).  You will have to come to terms with your to-do list never being done, or even close to it.”

In the space of a few months, I was forced to have a new relationship with my to-do list.  It would never get done, ever.  Eventually, I learned that the MBA school was very deliberate about this.  They never expected us to do everything asked and required – that was impossible.  They wanted us to learn this point in a safe environment, one where, honestly, it didn’t really matter that much.  Such a thing couldn’t be taught, but it could be experienced and therefore learnt from. 

My to-do list transformed into an invitation to decide what I will do next.  A quality to-do list with lots of things on it stopped being a tool that created overwhelm and started being a tool to help me make better decisions.  It’s still very important, but it’s not a list I’m trying to finish, it is a pipeline of activities that help me focus and stay motivated.  Now, when I start feeling overwhelmed by my to-do list, I try to reflect on how it would be worse if there was nothing to do.  Shock horror, that might mean I’ve made myself surplus to requirements! 

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