Leadership lessons from the closet

Image Credit: Darwin Bell (Flickr)

I have an unusual example to share today, and it’s one everyone can relate to.  Last weekend, I got around to doing something I’d been putting off for months: I finally, finally cleaned out my closet.  It turned out not to be that bad of a chore.  In fact, it was great.

After I was done, I realized that (surprisingly) there were 3 key leadership lessons to take away from this experience.  Who knew?

The 80/20 rule strikes again

The average person only wears 20% of their clothes on a regular basis.  So, for the vast majority of us, 80% of our clothes and shoes just take up space and we wear them rarely, if ever at all.  This struck me instantly as yet another application of Pareto’s principle.

Pareto’s principle is an observation that in most situations, the majority of the outcome is determined by the minority of the inputs.  As a rule of thumb, it’s said that 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of the inputs, which is where the term “80/20 rule” comes from.

For leaders, it means that 80% of the results you achieve towards any initiative are accomplished with 20% of the total effort exerted toward that end.  So every leader needs to understand what the key 20% are, and learn to focus on those vital few tasks to generate the most results from a finite amount of effort.

80% of the world's wealth is controlled by 20% of the population

80% of the world’s wealth is controlled by 20% of the population

Small Investments yield Big Returns

It took less than an hour to clean out my closet, and I ultimately got much more out of the experience than just the satisfaction of finishing a long-overdue chore.

First of all, it’s a lot less cluttered in there now, which means I don’t have to sift past the clothes I never wear anymore.  That makes it easier to find something to wear when I’m headed out, which saves me time.  So I made an investment in the beginning that pays off on a continued basis.

Second, I freed up a lot of space, which allows me to spread my clothes out and keep the closet organized with a lot less effort.  This has helped me organize other spaces because I freed up room to store things that were out of place elsewhere.  So when I improved one area, another area was enhanced as a result.

Finally, I found some clothes I forgot I even had, specifically 3 pairs of jeans that fit well and match my style.  This was a great surprise – I’ve been looking for more jeans lately, since I thought I didn’t have many that I liked to wear.  So in addition to what I planned to accomplish, I made useful discoveries along the way, completely by accident.

Get rid of your junk

I found more than conveniently fitting jeans in my closet – there was a lot of junk in there, too.  I discovered clothes that used to be in style that are definitely not OK to wear anymore.  I even found some things that are still in style culturally but no longer fit my style.

Every leader needs to do an honest self-assessment and unearth our junk from the past to be more effective in the present.  We also need to examine ourselves and discover if our own style has evolved and made certain attitudes less effective for us.

We all carry around baggage: things we do, behaviors we keep carrying forward that we really ought not repeat.  How many of these behaviors represent wasted space? How many of these are a part of the 80% of things we do that are not nearly as effective as the core 20%?

My advice: Remember the 80/20 rule, make investments in your leadership skills, and never be afraid to get rid of that junk you carry around that you don’t need anyway. And while you’re at it, clean out your real closet.  A lot of people in need could use that stuff.


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