(This report is an excerpt from “7 Moments… That Define Excellent Leaders”.)

Charlie Jones is a sportscaster who has covered several Olympic Games in his long career. At the 1996 games in Atlanta, he was assigned to announce the rowing, canoeing and kayaking events – a situation that left him less than thrilled, since it was broadcast at 7 a.m. and the venue was an hour’s drive from Atlanta.

What Jones discovered, however, was that it ended up being one the most memorable sports events in his career because he gained a chance to understand the mental workings of these Olympic athletes.

Preparing for the broadcast, Jones interviewed the rowers and asked them about conditions such as rain, strong winds or breaking an oar. Each time the response was the same:

“That’s outside my boat.”

After hearing the same answer again and again, Jones realized that these Olympic athletes had a remarkable focus. In their attempt to win an Olympic medal, he writes:

“They were interested only in what they could control… and that was what was going on inside their boat.”

Everything else was beyond their control and not worth the expense of mental energy that would distract them from their ultimate goal.

Jones writes that this insight made the event “by far the best Olympics of my life,” and it changed his thinking in other parts of his life as well.

We all remember the moments when we had to redirect employees’ effort back “inside the boat” to keep our team focused. I remember having to jump overboard a few times to rescue employees who had drifted way outside our boat!

We can stay inside our boat by treasuring our precious resources. Our time, energy and money are precious resources – if we spend them in one area, we cannot spend them in another area. They are finite.

As a result, saying “Yes” to one thing always means saying “No” to something else. Communicating this message deep into our team enables employees to say “No” to non-value-added tasks and to stay focused inside the boat… on value-added tasks.

One important way to demonstrate a team’s focus is to say “No” to activities that do not support its vision.

Saying “No” helped Walgreens outperform the stock market average 15 times between 1975 and 2000. At one point, Walgreens owned more than 500 restaurants. They decided their future was in convenience drug stores and that they would be out of the restaurant business in five years – they redefined their boat. They courageously stuck to their commitment, which required saying “No” many times to ensure a redirection of resources to their new future.

Saying “No” also applies to the day-to-day decisions we make as leaders. For example, if we spend two hours in a meeting that does not help our team achieve its vision, we pay an opportunity cost by spending time on non-value-added tasks. If we find ourselves saying, “That was a waste of time,” or “Why was I attending that meeting?” – these are signs we need to say “No.”

Meetings are an important way to conduct business. When I call a meeting, I think about the salaries of each attendee and the potential time they could be working on other important goals instead of being in the meeting. Since leaders decide how to use their employees’ time, they must ensure a good return for their time investment. Of course, meetings can be both necessary and useful, but they can also diffuse our focus if we do not know when to say “No.”

Treasuring our precious resources to help our team excel might not only create a defining moment for ourselves as leaders, but also for our teams!

Take the 7 Moments Indicator to help your pursuit for leadership excellence.

Copyright © 2006 by Lee J. Colan