Controlling Your 3 Foot World


In the leadership book “No Hero”, Navy Seal Mark Owen describes a mountain climbing exercise where he received some great advice to focus on his “three foot world”.  His takeaway from this feedback was centered on controlling the things he can, without looking too far backwards or forwards or up or down, to gain a positive outcome.  The respect I have for this man, and the US military in general, is immense…one of the biggest regrets in my life is not serving my country when I was younger.  As Mark stated in his book, many of the principles instilled in our military’s training are applicable to us as leaders in the business world.

There will always be situations and scenarios presented to us as leaders where we have limited control on the outcomes.  However, when it comes to controlling our professional lives, there are 3 things we have 100% control of:

  • individual preparation
  • attitude
  • work ethic

We all have a personal brand that we live to build and maintain.  Professional or personal competence does not occur without being intentional with our preparation, attitude, and work ethic.  If we control these 3 individual traits, our lives will always be full, we should be happy the majority of the time, and most importantly, we will always be learning.

When we discuss leadership and control, there are several items that come to mind to improve the way we influence control and inspire others.

  1. You have to “buy-in” to the leader before you are bought in to their ideas. People in leadership roles try to push their agendas without earning the respect of their direct reports or employees.  Titles are irrelevant when it comes to leading others and people will respond in a positive manner to initiatives from leaders they respect versus directives from ego driven managers who operate without a pulse on culture or real world situations.  True leaders do not look for individual credit for positive performance, and when things go well, highlight the team and point the praise to them.  When times are tough, the most respected leaders accept the responsibility internally and do not place blame on others.  Make sure you are continuously working to gain the respect of those around you, even when it means making difficult decisions or holding others accountable to making decisions consistent with your organization’s values.
  2. Gain a “fail-fast” attitude. People make decisions thinking their ideas will work.  I doubt there are many people who make a choice in life or business expecting to fail or to be unhappy.  Some of these choices may have negative consequences or be made without gathering all of the information possible.  As a leader, we must be quick to identify the poor decisions in life we make (and we all make them personally and professionally) and have a “fail-fast” mindset with a secondary plan in mind.  And in a “fail-fast” professional setting, you always need to have a back-up plan. Always…
  3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. This is another concept from “No Hero”.  What are your goals to improve on something you are currently not good at?  The most valuable mentoring experience I have had was working with a CFO of our organization.  This was a total departure from my inner circle of peers and supervisors who I continuously leaned on for support.  I am more of an instinctual or experience leader versus an analytical leader. I thought I was an effective strategic leader, but was worried about how I would come across to the CFO of our organization and if my ideas would be shallow compared to his depth of knowledge around numbers and finances.  The times spent with Mike taught me to view situations in an entirely different manner, and I am grateful for the opportunity of learning many things from someone whose personality is the polar opposite of mine.
  4. If you ask for feedback, make sure you listen and react. In working with different companies, a quick fix to any change in market or business dynamics is to create a “task force” or “advisory council” to discuss these issues.  Unless these assembled teams have the ability to influence change or make a difference, these groups can actually do more harm than good.  It is far worse to ask for feedback and not act upon these discussions, than to not inquire at all. The most productive councils or task forces have actionable items after each session, which should lead to improved performance if implemented correctly.  And if you as a leader are talking more than listening during these meetings, you will lose credibility within the group.
  5. Surround yourself with people who hate to lose and who learn from their failures and mistakes. It is easy to say we want to surround ourselves with “winners”…however, everybody loves to win.  As mentioned multiple times throughout this blog, we will all lose or fail at something in our life (if we are not failing or making mistakes, then we are not growing as a leader).  I am also not saying we should fail more than succeed.   We must always be gracious and humble when things go well.   In addition, we must be professional and positive in defeat while learning about what we could do better in future similar situations.  I feel the most effective leaders are ones who are driven to win in a compliant and proficient manner and, when faced with adversity or defeat, ask “how will I improve to win again”. True character is revealed in tumultuous times…make sure you and your team are prepared to overcome any challenge presented to you.
  6. If you don’t have an answer to an important question, set a goal to find an answer or point someone in the right direction to assist. A new term I have heard recently is “that’s not my responsibility or in my job description…I cannot help you”.  These words should never be shared as a leader, especially when it relates to something important to the person asking the question.  We will never have all of the answers, but make sure you are invested in finding an appropriate solution.  When we say “no” or “we can’t” as a leader, make sure to provide the reason why.

Control as a leader is a very difficult task to manage.  However, one of the easiest ways to manage your time and to improve efficiency is to hire well and not be afraid to hire someone who could be your replacement when you move on to your next role.  I have led plenty of people who are smarter than me or who are more strategic than I am.  Empowering your team to work together towards a common purpose is an amazing and fulfilling achievement, and should be the main reason we became leaders in the first place.


*above image from The Heritage Flag Company