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Updated: Aug 24, 2023

In the 1991 box office hit City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character Mitch Robbins was going through a midlife crisis. His two buddies played by Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby were not much better off, and all three of them signed up for a two week old fashioned cattle drive in the great Southwest.

For the New Yorkers, it was quite a culture shock particularly dealing with their seasoned, hard–nosed trail boss Curly Washburn, played by Jack Palance. In a classic scene, Curly held up his finger and shared with Mitch that the secret to life is to focus on the “one thing.” Of course, Mitch wants to know what that one thing is, but Curly informs him that he has to figure out what that one thing is for his own life.

In any organization, it is easy to lose track of what that “one thing,” or stated differently, the “main thing” really is.

Lack of Clarity

I find that too often there is a lack of clarity among employees regarding what the main thing is so organizations lose focus. Business is hard enough, but when everyone is not “on the same page” then it becomes that much more difficult to succeed.

The first step is to get clarity about what the main thing is for your organization. Perhaps your organization has a mission statement. That is a good start. Maybe in that statement it is clear what the main thing of the organization is. For example, the mission statement of the Mayo Clinic is, “Inspiring hope and promoting health through integrated clinical practice, education and research.” MD Anderson Cancer Center’s mission is, “To eliminate cancer in Texas, the nation, and the world through outstanding programs that integrate patient care, research and prevention, and through education for undergraduate and graduate students, trainees, professionals, employees and the public.”

There is not one right answer for what the main thing needs to be. The key is that it needs to be clear and concise. Everyone should know and understand the main thing. Looking at the two mission statement examples above, I find that the MD Anderson mission is clearer. I would guess that their main thing is to “eliminate cancer.” That creates focus. Employees can rally behind that cause. Your main thing should be clear to not only your employees, but also your customers, partners, and suppliers.

Lack of Emphasis

Once you have clarity about what the main thing is, you can’t simply take it for granted that everyone is going to remember it. Leaders within organizations have to repeat, repeat, and repeat what the main thing is. Great leaders communicate what is important to the stakeholders of the organization. Organizations naturally tend to drift, but great leaders keep everyone focused and aligned. In other words, they “keep the main thing the main thing.”

Once there is clarity, you can strip away those things that are not consistent with the main thing. This is easier said than done and takes tremendous discipline and courage. You will upset people because you will have to say “no” more. However, unless we say no more, you can’t put your full energy on the important things you have said “yes” too.

When you have clarity about your main thing then it helps in making critical decisions. You have to ask yourself, “is this decision going to help us achieve our main goal?” If not, then the answer is no.

Lack of Cause

In his book Great By Choice, Jim Collins examined a set of major companies that achieved spectacular results over 15 or more years while operating in unstable environments which he calls "10Xers" because they provided shareholder returns at least 10 times greater than their industry. About Apple, Collins noted, “Steve Jobs didn’t so much revolutionize the company as he returned it to the principles he’d used to launch the company from garage to greatness two decades earlier.”

There is a recurrent theme in the book about sticking to the basics that made you a success. The 10Xers all had what Collins’ calls Level 5 Ambition - “the passion for a cause larger than themselves and infused with the will to do whatever it takes to make good on that cause.”

While the language may vary, the principle is the same, great organizations have a “cause”, or a “main thing” that is the focal point for all that they do. The opportunity for us is to bring clarity into our organizations, and make sure that we have this type of motivating Level 5 Ambition to rally around. As this is a journey and not a destination, we will also have to make sure we are diligent to realize when opportunities may take us off course.

Whenever you are feeling your organization starting to drift, think about old Curly and remind yourself to think about “what is your main thing!”

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