Lessons in Life and Business From Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants

Photo by Abhishek Babaria on Unsplash

If you want to have the choice, you have to fight for it. All successful businesses face enormous pressure… Those forces will make the choice for you if you let them, in which case you will lose the opportunity to chart your own course.

In business as in life, if you do not have a clear philosophy you will be dragged along by the current and a philosophy will be thrust upon you. There is no stasis in life. If you don’t have ideas, you will be dragged along by the crowd and find yourself instinctually embracing the opinion of the crowd. It is a basic survival instinct. Safety is found in the crowd and so it is better to align with them than to stand alone. Exile as a punishment was effectively a death sentence as an individual was left to fend for themselves.

If you do not have clearly defined goals, you, as a business or individual, will find yourself regressing. With nothing to work towards, progress cannot be made. You might think that if you’re not working towards anything, then you will be standing still, but this is not the case. There is no standing still. The world, other businesses and other people are moving around you. If you are not progressing, then you are regressing as the world moves on and passes you by.

A small giant’s mojo comes, in part, from an active appreciation of a business’ potential to make a positive difference in the lives of the people it comes into contact with.

We don’t exist in isolation. We are embedded in the communities and networks that we live in. As we are always interconnected with other people, it means that our wins and our losses are shared within the community. A successful business, if it chooses to, can bring success to the community that it exists in. Through employment, using local businesses and drawing in customers, a business can raise up the community around it.

They [companies] were all so intimately connected to the place where they were located that it was hard to imagine them being anywhere else.

Building community ties builds a strong support base for the business and more importantly gives it an identity. An identity that will be unique to the area and can’t be replicated elsewhere. If you’re looking for what makes you or your business unique, look around, maybe it is right in front of your eyes.

Everything else that makes a company extraordinary depends on those who do the work of the business, day in and day out.

Employees are the most important part of any business, they are its heartbeat. If employees are not looked after then they will not do good work. They are the most important part. They manufacture the goods, interact with customers, keep premises clean, motivate each other, generate ideas and drive the business forward. If they are not motivated, don’t feel valued or don’t see importance in the work that they do, then the business will fail. A business cannot survive without its employees. Everything stems from them and they should be priority number one.

I have never encountered angrier and more cynical employees than those I’ve met in socially responsible companies that have been so focused on saving the world they neglected to do what was necessary to save themselves.

How can you save the world when you yourself are failing and not all that you could be? On an aeroplane we are told to put our own oxygen mask on first before helping others. If we die then what good are we to others? We can’t help people unless we have first helped ourselves.

The idea of focusing on yourself first may seem like a selfish idea, but it depends whether the help you are giving yourself is at the cost of others. If to help yourself you need to take or push others down, then obviously you are diminishing, rather than contributing to society. However, if you are truly bettering yourself, with your end goal of helping others in mind, then it can only better society.

At the individual level improving yourself and getting rid of flaws that you know to exist within you is self-evidently beneficial. At the family level, by improving yourself and removing the problems you create within the family (arguing unnecessarily over every little thing, leaving a mess behind, not being welcoming to your family etc.) means that there are less troubles for your family to worry about. This extends all the way to the societal level. When you get better, so do the lives of everyone around you. When their lives get better, this again spreads.

We need to remember that yes, we are individuals, but we are also in a network. What we do will impact the lives of everyone we are in contact with. In turn they will impact everyone around them and so on. In this way, we, in our lifetime, can influence the lives of thousands, if not millions of people. What impact do you want to have? It’s up to you to decide and the first step starts with you becoming what your potential knows that you could be.

It is scary to look at our potential and see all that we are not. A more hopeful way of thinking is that our potential represents all that we could be. All that is holding us back is ourselves.

[Purpose] makes the work people do meaningful; it continually reminds them how their contribution matters and why they should care about giving their best effort.

If you want people to work well and if you yourself want to work well then you need to be engaged in work that is meaningful. Work where the time flies by and you forget to eat or drink. This is when you know that what you are working on is meaningful and important to you.

We all know the feeling of doing something that we have no interest in. We put it off endlessly. When we actually have to do it, the time drags and we just want to be done with it. We rush the job. Do only what is necessary. Then move onto something else as soon as possible. Is this how we want ourselves or our employees to be? If not, then we need to create meaningful work and spend as much time as possible doing it.

Pay attention, when is the work the most meaningful and absorbing. That’s your body telling you: “Do more of this.” You may not know what work is meaningful to you off the top of your head, but if you watch yourself and see how you react then your body will let you know.

All quotes from Small Giants, Bo Burlingham.



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