Wobbly Tables: The Little Things Do Matter in Leadership

Mike Rothstein, Vice President of Business Development

During  National Military Appreciation Month, we reflect, express our gratitude to service members and their spouses, and remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many who have defended our freedom.  Mike Rothstein, former Major General in the U.S. Air Force, shares how even deciding the little things in leadership matters to the success of the organization.

It’s 6:30 in the morning and my father and I are getting coffee at a snack bar on Misawa, Air Base, Japan. Just the day before, I assumed command of the base, which included this particular establishment. We sit down at a table, and the table is pretty wobbly. Let’s just say that it’s a bit too wobbly for whatever your personal standard for table "wobbliness" might be.  My father, himself a base commander back in his day, grins widely and says, “Okay Mr. Base Commander, what are you going to do about this wobbly table?”

I consider some options. I can get on the floor and try to fix it myself. I can bring the issue to the staff on shift. I can engage someone higher up the organizational ladder. Or, I can do nothing.  Each option has advantages and disadvantages. If I can fix it myself, then it’s done with. If I talk to the 17-year-old on shift, that addresses the issue at the lowest level, but may be light on follow-through. If I go higher up the organization, that accesses more resources and experience, but sidesteps the front-line leader’s ability to work their issue.

So, I choose the "do-nothing" option. I explain to my father that as a brand-new base commander of an operational fighter wing, I want to focus on “bigger” things like combat operations and organizational strategy. I don’t want my first impression to land as, “I am the guy who is about wobbly tables.” So, I did nothing and went on with my day.

Six months later, my family and I happen to sit at the same table…and it’s still wobbly. Nothing has changed. In those six months, think of all the customers, staff and other leaders at all levels who experienced that same wobbly table and also chose to do nothing about it. This time, I did something, but I’ll let you guess at the tactic I chose. I wish I would have done it the first time.

So the lesson for me is that, as a leader or as the responsible person, when I walk by a problem and choose to do nothing about it, I better be prepared to live with the problem. If I am relying on someone else to see it and fix it, then that is likely not a smart bet. The table is one very minor example, but I have seen many others. No matter the level of leadership role I may be in, I have many ways to address a problem…directly, indirectly, fix it myself, ask for help, assign it to someone, etc., and each has its own merits. Sometimes, my best option is to still choose to walk by a problem because I know I can’t fight every battle.  

Over the years, I’ve become more intentional about addressing small problems as I encounter them, while still trying to keep my primary focus on the bigger issues. I’ve learned that my focus doesn’t have to be an either/or choice—I can actually do both. I’ve learned to more fully appreciate that addressing the small problems not only improves the team incrementally, but it also models habits of excellence and attention to detail that lead to a stronger organizational culture. Great organizations and great companies do the small things well, and great leaders demand this of themselves and their team.

So I ask, what are the wobbly tables in your corner of the organization?