The Most Seductive and Dangerous Mistake Smart Leaders Make

Business leaders are on the firing line, making it happen, and trying to realize ever more difficult goals. Far too often, for every one step forward, they take one, two or three steps backwards by making that most seductive and dangerous of mistakes: they lose focus.

Losing Focus

As leaders, we are best able to realize challenging goals through a continuous, unrelenting focus on the most important 3 – 5 goals and priorities.

Unfortunately, we are being bombarded with data, information, suggestions, programs, initiatives, ideas, and issues. With all that input, lists of priorities and goals grow to 10, 12, even fifteen. I have even seen one $20M company that had a formal list of 26 programs and initiatives they were working on.

It is devilishly tricky to keep the required focus. We have all heard the lines:

  • “… and just one more thing…”
  • “You can get it done quickly; it is not a big deal.”
  • “Everything is an “A” priority because everything is important.”

But, the sad reality is that no individual and no company has the attention span, time and ability to properly focus on more than 3 – 5 key priorities at any one time.


“Too many priorities mean no priorities.”


The challenging part for us as leaders is that each goal, each priority, each initiative, in and of itself, is good, useful and may absolutely be necessary. Unfortunately, when combined together, all these good things become too much and unmanageable.

In his book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins discusses exactly this issue. For him, the second stage of decline in dying companies is “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” These failing companies are trying to do everything possible to correct their increasing weakness and irrelevance in the marketplace. But, this “pursuit of more” just weakens the company further, diffusing the leadership and company focus away from the essential parts of the business.

It’s Gotta Hurt

In order to keep the focus, we have to limit our goals and priorities to the vital 3 – 5. Then, we accomplish them. Then, we establish the next essential 3 – 5 goals. It is easy to do in theory. It is easy to write about. In reality, however, it hurts. We have to make tough decisions to not do something that can be useful in order to focus on more important goals. What gets excluded might be the cherished goal of a senior manager, or it might be the most important priority of a senior staff person. Still, if it is not one of the vital 3 – 5, it needs to be cut.

  • “But, we are leaving something on the table.”
  • “You are under-estimating our team. We can do it all; we just will work harder.”
  • “All these priorities need to be done.”

All these may be true. But the over-riding goal of the best leaders remains the same: focus on fewer in order to get more done.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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