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The Most Memorable Leadership Advice I’ve Ever Been Given

Doing everything about the fewest, most important priorities will put you on a path to success.

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BY Chris McGoff - 15 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

“Tell me the single most important piece of advice you have ever been given.”

As a life-long learner, this is one of my favorite questions to ask some of my most influential and interesting clients. I once posed this question to Rob Wiltbank, CEO of Galois Inc., which uses applied mathematics to solve difficult technical problems like cyber deception and driverless cars.

Without hesitation he smiled and replied,“One of the greatest things I have learned is to stay clear of turds.” I was a little taken aback at the unexpected response but intrigued to learn more. He went on to explain how early in his career a colleague warned him,“Everybody is trying to put turds in your pocket all the time - you just don't realize it. The key to leadership, life, and sanity is to keep all the turds out of your pocket except the few you are willing to keep.” Rob calls this the turd principle.

The Turd Principle

The turd principle is quite simple. Co-workers, peers, even your family members are constantly asking for your help or your input. Oftentimes, these people don't actually need you, yet they still seek your help. Let me demonstrate. One of your employees bursts into your office telling you about their great idea, and they want your direction on how to make it happen. Do you see what just happened?

This employee just put a turd in your pocket. Now you have a dilemma - do you keep the turd in your pocket, or do you hand it right back to them? If you know the employee is perfectly capable of handling this own their own, or there is still a lot of thinking that needs to be done before you assist, immediately give the turd back by saying,“That's an interesting idea with lots of potential. How do you plan on making it happen?” The turd is back in their pocket.

Turds fly at us in our personal life, especially if you have kids. How often have your kids marched into the kitchen and announced,“I can't find my shoes.” The kid just put a turd in your pocket. Some people keep the turd and jump to assist. But the "turd returners” say,“Oh yeah - how are you going to find them?" Turd back in their pocket. Your spouse says,“We don't talk anymore.” That is definitely a turd in your pocket.“I agree honey. I'm all in. What do you have in mind?” Turd is right back in their pocket. And notice that they used a passive statement to put that turd in your pocket. A lot of turds get passed through statements as opposed to requests.

How to Manage These Requests

So the turd is what people put in your pocket to evoke an action on your part. Family, friends, co-workers, and strangers are loading your pockets with turds through email, phone calls, and face-to-face interactions. Some of us love to be needed, so the more turds that bulge our pockets, the more wonderfully miserable we feel about our businesses and the world's dependence on us. But peak performance leaders see the turds and volley most back immediately. And the master“turd returners” volley the turds back in a manner where the turd sender thanks them gratefully.

This is the art of the turd game.“Hey thanks, Chris. That was a great conversation, and I am thrilled to have this turd in my pocket instead of yours.” “Any time, friend.” Remember, others can't see the turds. Bottom line: See the turds coming at you. Volley back all except for the few you want to run with.

Take Away

So here is today's leadership hack. Step one: SEE the turds coming your way. Actively CHOOSE a few turds to hold and act on. Return the rest. Do everything about these fewest, most important turds versus doing a few things about all the turds confronting you. In the end, you win and so does everyone else.