It happened to me again the other day! I was writing a memo on my PC to the manufacturer’s representatives that I manage and it suddenly appeared. It has been happening to me for years but not quite as often as it used to. There I was typing away, allowing the words to eloquently flow like melting butter, and jolt…the “blue screen of death”. If you have ever worked on a computer that has a Microsoft Windows operating system, you know exactly what I mean. This terrifying blue screen can come with a number of startling messages. The two I have become intimately familiar with over the years proclaim inspiring statements like, “a fatal exception OE has occurred. The current application will be terminated.” Why does it have to always be fatal? Why can’t it just sometimes say, “Excuse me, we have a minor problem here?” Or there is a second type of message with the ever nebulous proclamation that “your system has become unstable, you may press any key and wait [forever!], or press CTRL*ALT*DEL again to restart your computer. You will lose any unsaved information.”
Of course, Gregie’s Law states that these messages are most likely to occur just as you are completing the last sentence of an unsaved document. Gregie’s Law is a lot like Murphy’s Law except it is based on the premise that Murphy was far too much of an optimist! As leaders, there is much we can learn from these commonly dreaded scenarios. It should not surprise us that software written by men and women can possess the same characteristics or weaknesses of the humans that created them. However, before I discuss the things we can learn regarding leadership, please allow me to draw an analogy. I will discuss why a few of these blue screens happen to the WindowsÒ operating system in layman’s terms. I am not a programmer or software designer, but I believe I can roughly explain some of the reasons for the infamous “blue screen of death”, even though it may not be technically correct in all aspects.
A software program interacts with the computer hardware to become a working tool for an individual. Combined together, this interaction between software and hardware is designed to be compatible and is often referred to as system resources. Depending on the motherboard design, CPU, RAM, and other design qualities, system resources are limited. I am told that these resources can often be expanded but still always have limitations. Even with a mammoth hard drive and abundant RAM, resources can still be limited because of the operating system design, BIOS or motherboard characteristics. One of the reasons for a blue screen can be the operation of too many programs at the same time. One presently may be maximized while the others are minimized in the background. As we work on the PC, we may be switching back and forth between them. This is known as multi-tasking. For example, sometimes I have a word processor, spreadsheet, web browser, email program, FTP program and file manager all open at the same time. While I am working on one, the others are still minimized in the background and taking up system resources. Because so many resources are utilized, switching from one program to another can cause the system to become unstable, resulting in the blue screen blues!
Another potential problem lies in memory swapping. One program may reside in a certain portion of RAM memory. Another program may then become maximized and attempt to place its memory in the same address space. A previous program that occupied a portion of address space may still claim it while the new program attempts to use it. The result…you guessed it, the ”fatal exception error” blues! Many PC users also notice a reduction in PC performance if too many programs are allowed to start at system boot-up because they were placed in the start menu or system tray. These start-up programs may run minimized but take up system resources, slowing down the computer.
It is not my intent to criticize the most popular operating system on earth or point out its flaws. Actually, it is getting better. Even the most recent advertising by Microsoft proudly proclaims that its latest operating system is “13 times more reliable than Windows 98”. Of course being in sales and marketing for most of mycareer, I understand this probably means it is a littler better than its predecessor. So what does all of this information have to do with leadership? It actually gives us a lot to think about as we apply this information and draw an analogy to ourselves. As I stated earlier, it should be no surprise to us that the humans who created these machines designed them with flaws similar to ourselves.
Here is lesson #1. Everything physical has limited resources. Just like PC’s, we also have very precious and limited resources. It is the tendency of good and hard working leaders to take on many different tasks. As a matter of fact, the ability for a leader to have multi-tasking capabilities is essential in our modern age. During any given workday, we may be jumping from one important task to another constantly. The CEO may have the luxury to sit in the corner office and ponder the joys of a corporate vision, but the rest of us have multiple duties and functions to perform that require a rapid exchange of focus, ideas and projects. It is certainly preferable to have the skills and expertise of multi-tasking, but remember that every one of the tasks we decide to address drainsour own personal system resources. Unlike a PC, our system resources consist of our physical energy, mental sharpness, ability to focus, emotional well-being, and coworker relationships. Yes, our ability to effectively address various issues and projects has limitations!
Even many “corporate teams” have the potential to be effective tools of change and accomplishment. However, often the various team members are forced to become far too involved in multiple daily “meetings” (babble sessions) with other teams or groups and the results are mediocre performance. The resources of these individuals or groups are so drained by frivolous projects and blather that their decisions are typically poor and ineffective! Again, lesson #1 is to accept and realize that your resources are limited and precious. James O’Toole comments on this multi-tasking problem confronting leaders today. He remarks, “that the process of leadership is a never-ending struggle to balance the constant and never-ending demands of those with different objectives.” He later contends, “the task is to lead through the processes of design, composition, tension, balance and harmony.”
Here is lesson #2. Take a few minutes to think about the many activities or tasks you are involved in. How many are really essential? How many are we involved in because we forgot to decline involvement or didn’t want to say “no”. Remember, every one of these is reducing your effectiveness and draining at least some of your precious system resources. Maybe it is time to shut down some of these projects or totally “bow out” of them. When working on my PC, I often find programs minimized that I used earlier and should have shut down. There they are residing in the background and taking up limited resources! As leaders, it is often difficult for us to say ‘no” to yet another challenge. Many of us were trained to simply accept what we are asked to do. Saying “no” has been considered refusing to be a team player. The question is do we want everything we do to be mediocre? Do we want to do only a few things well and most things poorly because our resources are taxed to their limits? Or, do we want to do fewer tasks, yet all of them well because we are focused and truly able to be effective? A hallmark of leadership is to recognize our own limitations and learn to say “no” or to admit this is not the best time to get involved in another menial task or function. I once heard a CEO mention to his executive team, “When you add something on to the priority list, something else must come off the list.” He was on to something! We simply must stop majoring in the minors and make quality decision-making the goal of leadership rather than quantity. However, we may face a mental conflict by saying “no” or stepping back from projects of little real value. Researcher Gary Yukl appropriately points out that some types of positive supporting behavior by other peers and coworkers can reduce the amount of stress on the job. Other types peer support can even help a person cope with stress. But, stepping away fromsome tasks will not eliminate the support or camaraderie of others who respect and value our dedication and efforts. Again, lesson #2 is to reduce the number of non-essential tasks and projects you are involved in.
Here is lesson #3. Stressing your limited resources with too many endeavors inhibits the things you really want to do and value most! While working on my PC, I typically receive the blue screen while I am working on the immediate task at hand. Usually it occurs while I am doing the most important project to me at the time. The same thing occurs in business or our personal life. When we allow ourselves to be involved in too many projects, it saps our scarce resources. Remember, these consist of our physical energy, mental sharpness, ability to focus, emotional well-being, and coworker relationships. When something of real value or importance arises, we are not at our best when our personal resources are exhausted. Much like the infamous blue screen, many sincere individuals have lives that have lost their stability or are virtually frozen in inaction because of depleted personal resources.
Don’t allow this to happen to you. Many years ago I had an elderly friend who previously worked at the NASA Lewis Research Center near Cleveland, Ohio. He told me to never forget the difference between an amateur and a professional. The difference is…attention to detail! If you think about it, this is true of almost every area or our professional and private lives. When our own limited vital resources are taxed to the limit, we lose the ability to concentrate on detail. The end result is poor decision-making and inadequate leadership. Next month I will discuss some of the important ways we can all protect, balance and even nurture our own personal resources. We will discuss how we can avoid our own intellectual “blue screen of death.”
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About the author:
Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 9 years that of Regional Sales Manager. He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. In August of 2000, Greg completed his studies for a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University. He is the founder of weLEAD Incorporated.
O'Toole, J. (1995). Leading Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, pp.257-258.
Yukl, G. (1998). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. pp. 95.
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