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What Do Gnats and Elephants have to do with Being an Effective Leader?

Making small things in life into big things, and big things in life, into small things. These are your elephants and gnats.

One of the signs of being dense is to become focused on the gnats so as to miss the elephants.  Or, more simply put, dense people think the small things in life are big and the big things in life are small.


Bob regularly took the train from Philadelphia to New York.  He had a system. He rolled up his raincoat and put it in the overhead bin.  He put his iPad in the netting on the seatback and his cell phone on the tray. He reminded himself frequently of where he had placed everything so that when he got off the train he would remember to take all of his belongings.


One day, he was distracted and left his iPad on the train.  He didn’t realize his mistake until he arrived at his hotel.  Opening his briefcase and finding his iPad missing threw him into a panic. Immediately, he called his office and asked if anyone had reported having found it (Naturally, he had taped his business card to the back).  With frustration rising to the point of panic, he directed his assistant to call Amtrak to check the lost and found and to have someone search the train. He couldn’t concentrate on anything but getting it back.  He was completely distraught.  His day was ruined.


It certainly isn’t pleasant to lose your iPad. But, neither is it the end of the world. It isn’t fun to be set back $800, but it is also true that $800 won’t break the bank.  And when we let mistakes, annoyances and inconveniences distract us from the possibilities of the moment, we are making a tremendous strategic error!

What are your “gnats”?

Even the most successful leaders often have petty issues that distract them from seeing the big picture:

  • Perfectionism.  You do set such high standards that you few of your team meet your expectations?
  • Control.  Do you want everything to run past you such that processes are slowed and your people are frustrated?
  • Unfairness.  Do you take too much for yourself and fail to fully recognize the contributions and efforts of others?
  • Ego.  Do you want so much of the credit that you actually steal ideas from others and leave your people feeling overlooked and used?
  • Security.  Are you so fearful of losing that you can’t take advantage of opportunities when they appear?
  • Importance.  Do you measure your importance by such transient things as your net worth or the size of your home such that you miss the richness of time with your children or the love of your spouse?


We all need to be reminded to see the “big” picture and to value that which is most important. This is the key to being a successful leader.

Here is a list of some of the things that you should value most:

  • Your integrity as a human being. Being clear, honest and transparent leads to positive energy.
  • Love.  The people who love you and whom you love are your most valuable possessions. They should always be your highest priority.
  • Meaning and purpose. You will be most powerful when you are clear as to your purpose in life and spend each day fulfilling it.
  • Children.  Your children are a window to the miraculous. If you are too busy to see their first smile or their first step, you have missed something you will never recover.
  • Joy. Life is meant to be joyous every moment of every day.  If that is not your experience, something is wrong.


One of my clients, whom I work with through my business coaching services, had just moved into a beautiful home in the hills outside San Francisco. He had planned an outing for some of his business colleagues at his home later in the day and was stopping by to pick up a few things.  His wife and children had walked out the door about 30 minutes earlier.  They had smelled something peculiar but couldn’t find anything wrong.  As he pulled into his driveway he saw black smoke billowing from his kitchen windows. The fire department arrived in about 12 minutes.  The fire was put out but the house was totaled.


His response.  “I am so pleased that no one was hurt.  A house can be rebuilt.  My family can’t be replaced.  I found myself amazingly calm and accepting’.  It is so important to put first things first.


Remember to make the most important things most important today. It’s up to you whether you live life as dense as a rock or full of the light of understanding, which brings peace, happiness and prosperity.

About Jack Skeen

Jack Skeen
Jack Skeen, founder of Skeen Leadership, has been coaching bright and successful leaders for close to two decades, spending thousands of hours addressing every imaginable leadership, business and life issue with wisdom and professionalism.

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