Leadership Spotlight

One Bite at a Time

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“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”

—Creighton Abrams

While going through life, we often face challenges that seem insurmountable, and we waste a lot of time and energy worrying about how to overcome them. Whether personal or professional, the challenges can become bigger because life happens. What am I going to wear to school? Eat for breakfast? What college will I attend? What do you mean I have to get a job and live on my own? Get married and have children? Now I have to pay for my kids to go to school? Looking back, we realize that these decisions were just part of life—we solved them and moved on. How did we do it? One bite at a time.

Most of us chose law enforcement as a profession because we wanted to help people and make a difference in our communities. We made it through the academy; received a gun, badge, and car; and were told to go out and make decisions. With all our newfound knowledge, we not only helped the citizens of our jurisdictions but also identified leadership issues and problems within our organizations. We made grand declarations about how we would make sweeping changes “when we are in charge!”

However, as we moved up through the ranks, we quickly learned that there are more factors involved in making change than we realized as new employees. Politics, personalities, unions, and, of course, money all play a part in decisions that affect organizations. Figuring out how to negotiate these things can prove daunting. Unfortunately, trying to take on too many changes at once can lead to frustration and stifle productivity. We need to take it one bite at a time.

When preparing to tackle any large project, you first need to relax and gain some perspective on why you are doing it. Instead of trying to make several significant changes, choose one to get the ball rolling. Identify the goal you wish to achieve, the appropriate time frame, and those who will benefit from it. Next, determine what the successful outcome looks like, how much of a time commitment is required, and who you need on your side to achieve success. What resources (e.g., time, money, talent) must you have, and what help can you expect along the way? Finally, break the project up into smaller issues and focus on tackling those one at a time. Before you know it, those smaller pieces come together, resulting in successful completion of the whole.

After completing a project, we may look back and wonder how we did it or why we worried so much about it in the first place. If we look at major challenges as a whole, they seem impossible and overwhelming—just like eating an elephant. However, if we break them down into small, easily achievable, and realistic “bites” and ask for help along the way, we find that anything is possible!

Heidi A. Marshall, an instructor in the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at hamarshall@fbi.gov.