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Commentary: Beware of drifting and sweating the small stuff, stay focused on success

Leaders should take care not to sweat the small stuff. Instead, John Bittleston lays out four steps to keeping success in sight.

Commentary: Beware of drifting and sweating the small stuff, stay focused on success

People sitting around a cafe discussing work on their laptops. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: Constantly working hard is not only tiring, but downright impossible. Individuals, businesses, organisations and countries all drift from time to time. Their attention wanders and they lose sight of their objectives.

While it is reasonable to pause now and then to smell the roses, in today’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, drifting can create drastic consequences.

How do you know when you are drifting?

One of the surest ways is to ask yourself the questions, “Where do you want to be in two years’ time? Do you know which direction you are taking?” In order to make progress, you must be clear about your destination.

Are you paying attention to trivial matters? Focusing on small details is a bad habit that allows us to avoid tackling difficult issues. A confident leader knows the critical items he or she should concentrate on, and leaves the nitty-gritty to others.

The Donald Trump administration is an excellent example of when a leader has lost his vision and allows internal politics and squabbling to take its place. Several other world leaders are also falling prey to drift.

They set no clear direction for where they want to take their countries. This is dangerous for their people.   

There are many similar lessons for a world leader who needs to retain his or her vision, and a business leader working to keep his company on the right track. Here are four suggestions for both to avoid drifting:


The priorities for a country’s leader should be political independence and security, self-determination and the rule of law, social cohesion, economic survival and prosperity – in that order.

But the UK and the US are isolating themselves economically and socially, evidence that their priorities are not in the right place. We all live in a global world, and any pretence otherwise is self-delusional.

For a business leader, vital priorities include keeping the customers happy, developing and motivating employees, and creating new products and solutions to ensure the long-term survival of the company. The importance of innovation today cannot be overstated.

When setting priorities, leaders need to provide specific goals and not generic encouragement of the “everything will be better tomorrow” variety.

When a leader’s priorities are clear, employees will follow.


Each of the priorities I have mentioned should have its own destination. Not only do world leaders and business leaders need to know what is the end-goal, they must be clear about the order of the different priorities.

Sometimes destinations for different priorities will appear irreconcilable with each other. The leader's job is to make the compromises acceptable to avoid disaster, while ensuring that innovation is not sacrificed. Without a vision, no individual or organisation can develop.


The middle management are the “next-in-charge” people, who are key to making the leader’s vision a reality. Often, those within these ranks will compete for funds, attention and special treatment.

Leaders must manage this well, as internal divisions can chip away at vision and past achievements.

Managing a board is an art, not a science.

There will be thought leaders, though they may not necessarily be the Chairman. There will also be one or two die-hard opponents, in addition to enthusiastic supporters.

Getting this disparate group to work together requires finely attuned emotional intelligence and artful negotiation skills to balance egos and temperaments, all while keeping a smile on your face. Above, all leaders must be able to convince board directors that his or her idea was theirs.


This is not a one-off exercise, but a continuous process. While it might sound rather wishy-washy at first, one should not underestimate the power of identity. A society that takes pride in its identity is a happy one, just as a company conscious of what it stands for and the values it upholds is more likely to be a successful one.

Whether a country or a company, its people must find its distinctive edge to develop a clear identity –  which is the unique advantage they bring to the world, that allows it to stand apart from the rest.

Lose it and no amount of technical development will restore the beauty. An identity to unite around gives people a stake in what they do; when they connect with their responsibilities, watch them flourish.

No one can maintain a laser focus at all times. It is fine to take a break to watch the sunset.

But remember also to watch for the sunrise. Every day brings a fresh challenge.

If we drift, we might miss it – and the many opportunities that accompanies each challenge. 

John Bittleston is the founder mentor of Terrific Mentors International, an organisation that provides mentoring, coaching and training services. 

Source: CNA/sl