Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

The Mastery of Details is an Integral Part of Leadership

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Oprah Winfrey  (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey
(Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

The United States Nuclear Navy has an enviable record for engineering excellence and safety. From its inception in the 1940s, Admiral Hyman Rickover (U.S. Navy) established exacting standards for every aspect of its operation. Not content to remain behind a desk, he was present on the bridge of every newly launched vessel as it underwent its sea trials.

He was truly immersed in the details of each project and every mission, and left nothing to chance. This included interviewing every naval officer before they were allowed into the nuclear program. He stated that, “The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates.

Yet ‘the devil is in the details.’ It is hard and monotonous to pay attention to seemingly minor matters. In my work I probably spend about 99 percent of my time on what others may call petty details. Most managers would rather focus on lofty policy matters. But when the details are ignored, the project fails.

No infusion of policy or lofty ideals can then correct the situation. To maintain proper control one must have simple and direct means to find out what is going on. There are many ways of doing this; all involve constant drudgery.

For this reason those in charge often create ‘management information systems’ designed to extract from the operation the details a busy executive needs to know. Often the process is carried too far. The top official then loses touch with his people and with the work that is actually going on.”

Colin Powell (U.S. Army) noted, “Sometimes details are neglected because they’re not sexy enough… Running anything is primarily an enormous amount of grubby detail work and very little excitement, so deal making is kind of romantic, sexy. That’s why you have deals that make no sense.

Good leaders don’t view details… as grubby. They view the mastery of detail as an integral part of leadership.”

As military leaders, both Rickover and Powell recognized the value of being immersed in details. They understood that in a combat environment, overlooked details can be costly in many ways, especially regarding the lives of the men and women who serve under them. This immersion in detail was also observed in other military leaders, including Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant and Robert Wood (Sears).

A desire to immerse themselves in details isn’t limited to military leaders. It was observable in the behaviors of other great leaders, including Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elizabeth Arden (Elizabeth Arden), and Estée Lauder (Estée Lauder) to cite a few.

William Boeing (Boeing) began his career in the lumber business before he saw the future of aviation. In addition to Boeing he also created the United Aircraft Corporation and United Airlines as subsidiaries. (The Federal government ultimately broke-up Boeing as a monopoly in 1934.)

As Boeing grew his aviation business, “[he] continued to run his timber business and was able to absorb details of both lumber and airplane enterprises. Years later, he could recall the description and topography of a parcel of land and the species and quality of timber that it would yield. He believed in details and told his managers that many a wrong decision stemmed from a detail overlooked or incorrectly interpreted.”

Another aviation pioneer, Juan Trippe (Pan American Airways) immersed himself in every detail of his emerging business. “When [he] got Pan American Airways into the air in 1927 he knew every wrinkle in its flying equipment (a lone tri-motored Fokker), every part in his stockroom, every wavelet in the go-mile mail route between Key West and Havana.”

When viewed from the perspective of “ruthless efficiency,” the practice of immerging oneself in the details of managing a successful enterprise makes absolute sense. Large and widespread companies by their very nature, creates potential waste and duplication.

This is underscored by a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in March 2010 entitled, Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, which reported wide spread waste and duplication of efforts throughout the Federal government, costing taxpayers up to $200 billion annually.

John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil) is a notable example. “Of all the lessons John absorbed from his father, perhaps none surpassed in importance that of keeping meticulous accounts… The titan had to know to the last pipe, to the last oil storage tank at each of his refineries, to the last Standard Oil tanker at sea, to the last penny in Standard Oil’s Accounts Receivable, and to the last of whatever else he could think of in his business, where everything was, how the item or person served his purposes, and their exact value.”

Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Productions) openly admits her lack of management acumen. She delegates that aspect of the business to professional managers within her organization. Yet, this does not stop her from immersing herself in the details of her business.

“Everything is personal at Harpo. While Oprah does delegate operational decisions, she is all over her content. Before O gets shipped to the printer, she reads every word and scrutinizes every picture—typically working on the magazine, via her office PC, from 3 P.M. to 8 P.M. Tuesday through Thursday and all day Friday, when she doesn’t shoot her show.

‘She’s into every little… thing, the commas, the exclamation points,’ says Gayle King, who, as editor-at-large, is Oprah’s eyes and ears at the Manhattan-based magazine.”

Winfrey’s attention isn’t just limited to her content. She personally signs all checks and pays close attention to how her money is being spent.

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011) Read a Free Chapter

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2012 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

Written by Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D.

January 2, 2013 at 10:50 am

One Response

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  1. I like the article. Congrats, it is very nice and learnless. I have a blog where sometimes I write some articles about human resources and its topics, as for example, leadership, althought I´m not an expert on this area if not strategy. Include some people from the past is a great idea, sometimes we forget big leadership society had in the past.


    Best Regards,


    January 2, 2013 at 10:54 am

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