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Controlling What We, As Leaders, Can Control

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

As a leader, it’s important we occasionally take a step back and look at how we operate as leaders. Notice I did not say owner, business development professional, manager, C-suite etc. “Leader” was the operative keyword. So, yes, I am talking about all of us.

2019 was that perfect opportunity for me to take that step to evaluate myself as a leader. I chose to leave a very safe career and workplace and bring everything that I thought (or knew) to be true of leadership and apply it in my new job and work environment.

One of the largest benefits of reflecting on our leadership is that it forces us to apply all the principles and truths that guide how operate and see if the same principles can be applied within a completely new organization and culture. This reflection also forces one to look at everything they ‘knew’ previously and see if those truths still apply.

I have always held the following principle to be relevant and true:

You need to know that you can only control what you can control. Period.

Being an effective leader means recognizing our organization improves only when our teams are performing at their best. The people we lead come with varied backgrounds and points of view. And effective leaders embrace the fact that we are all different. In fact, I would make a case for the more varied the backgrounds and life experiences, the better your organization.

This is where the magic happens. Celebrating our work with people from different backgrounds and points of view. Applauding our colleagues who look at the exact same problems or opportunities with a different perspective. These viewpoints help strengthen our ability to lead successful organizations.

How does this tie into my premise of controlling what we can control as leaders? Well, let me bring this principle into my world. The very exciting world of property casualty insurance (you know it as commercial insurance and personal insurance, such as insuring your home/autos/business etc.). In the world of Property and Casualty Insurance, you cannot control the weather for example. You can control the rates you charge for claims because of hurricanes, hail, wildfires, and tornados, but no amount of wishing will change the weather.

And let us not forget other things we cannot change as leaders; things like the personal lives of our employees and what happened on their way to work that day, their sick kids, an ongoing pandemic, environmental issues, the economy, and social issues to name a few. Let’s face it, as leaders there is a lot we can’t control. But we still can control our responses, even when a variable hits that you may not have been prepared for. We can still have an effective strategy to move forward.

So, what should we be trying to control or as I like to call it ‘manage or sway’? Here is my top 5 list in no particular order:

Ø Manage how you delegate and develop your team. Give them the tools to successfully do their jobs and then let them do it. Of course, there are things that you would have done differently. But your team will come up with different ways to make that project their own.

Ø Set the tone for the messaging you deliver to your associates/teammates. Set clear goals and explain the desired outcomes of those initiatives. And be sure to express your confidence in their ability to succeed.

Ø Focus on listening when meeting with your team. Did you go into that discussion with an agenda and a prepared monologue, or did you go in ready to truly listen and understand? Were you an effective sounding board to assist as a resource or did you operate as the project engineer?

Ø Control your own headspace. Yes, every leader is presented with an “opportunity” to respond to outside variables. Take some time to evaluate those opportunities and who on your team is best equipped to manage those setbacks, roadblocks, or unexpected issues. The first step is to view barriers as an opportunity to grow your team, learn from challenges, and get better collectively. The quote about is this going to matter in 1 day, 1 month or 1 year is always a great thing to consider when I’m presented with those opportunities. Overreacting never works!

Ø Last, but not least, control your own growth. Have you picked up a great book lately or listened to a insightful podcast? Have you taken time to get to know one of your associates better, or sought reverse mentoring by someone in your organization? Maybe growth looks as simply as taking a walk to think about the different ways to approach an opportunity. But devote time to sharpen your own saw.

Jim Collins wrote the classic Good to Great 20 years ago and shared this overriding theme. He surmised that the best leaders and the best organizations did not need to do a complete overhaul to be their best. They needed incremental changes that were disciplined and were relentless in good times and bad times. They controlled what they could control. They hired great people and had unwavering faith that they would prevail in the end. I leave you with my favorite quote: “When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls”.

20 years later, his words still ring true for me…how about you?

Dan Wolfgram is the Chief Operating Officer for Badger Mutual Insurance, where he oversees the development and execution of the organization’s strategic initiatives across the U.S. Since becoming COO in 2019, he has been the lead driver in establishing a learning culture focused on leadership development across the organization. Mr. Wolfgram’s leadership philosophy centers around relationship building and employee development. Dan holds an associate’s degree in marketing from Waukesha County Technical College and a bachelor’s degree in business management from Cardinal Stritch University.

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