As a leadership trainer and organizational development facilitator, I get lots of requests for training. Usually the requests are in the form of “those idiots working for us need training,” because many executives believe they already know everything. I don’t bother to point out the obvious need for self-reflection, but instead dig deeper to find out the real needs and figure out what training (if any) is truly needed, within the bounds of the general thrust of the client’s request.

Over the years I have taught all aspects of leadership, management, communication, collaboration, group dynamics, diversity, strategic planning—you name it, I’ve probably taught it. But there is one topic I avoid like the plague.

I’m talking about Time Management.

If you want to learn how to organize your files and clean up your inbox, there are plenty of books that will help you do that. If you want a comprehensive appointment system, there are competing companies who will be happy to sell you all sorts of tracking tools and devices to help you feel like you’re really on top of the time thing. But until you absorb one fundamental concept, all the day-timers and Stephen Covey facilitators in the universe won’t help you.

The concept is this: time management is a choice. Your choice. You choose how you manage your time.

The reason why I resist teaching time management is that most people strongly object to the idea that they have a choice in the matter. They whine about the 2000 emails in the inbox, about the additional duties they’ve had to take on due to staff cuts, about the unreasonable demands of upper management that must be met and about the unreasonable clients who want everything yesterday.  They want somebody to give them a magic wand to make it all go away.

They conveniently forget that perception involves choice. We select perceptions from the thousands of stimuli at any given moment and ignore the rest. If you’re worried about the 2000 e-mails in your inbox, that is because you choose to focus on them and get your knickers in a twist. You aggravate the problem by keeping thousands of emails whose only purpose is CYA. The work continues to pile up, at least in your mind.

The common wisdom, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority” is true. Unless you have sufficient self-awareness to know when you’re responding from fear rather than from your native intelligence, no one can help you manage your time. Unless you develop the awareness that many so-called priorities are symptomatic of insecure people making a mountain out of a molehill, you’ll be trapped in reaction mode forever. And unless you have a clear idea of your purpose, both in your work and in your overall life, the stimuli generated by organizational fear and dysfunction will leave you helplessly flailing to manage priorities that aren’t really priorities at all.

So, stop playing the victim of the information explosion and take responsibility for your time. Organizations abound with fake priorities that have nothing to do with the alleged mission of the organization. Constantly ask, “Is this trip really necessary? Is this really worth our time, given all of the other things on our plate?” If the task is important, ask, “What current priorities are going to have to fall by the wayside? What additional resources will be available to help us with this new priority?”

I repeat: time management is a choice. Empower yourself and embrace that responsibility.

Another great leader who made a big mistake.

Another great leader who made a big mistake.

I’ve been reading Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton. It’s an excellent biography by one of the few biographers who consistently provides a balanced view to his work.

We remember Earl Warren first of all for his contributions to the advancement of equality, particularly in the area of school desegregation. He’s also remembered for several more controversial decisions that protected the rights of the accused in criminal proceedings, but his primary claim to fame comes from his well-publicized commitment to civil rights.

What is less known is that Warren was one of the major leaders behind the internment of Japanese citizens in World War II, an act that deprived hundreds of thousands of Americans of all of their civil rights and ranks as one of the most shameful acts in American history.

From a leadership perspective, Warren is not unusual. While we all have a desire to find a leader who can satisfy our desire for the perfect hero, no leaders are perfect. Many of the people whom we consider our greatest leaders were also guilty of horrible mistakes. Lincoln wasted years of effort and thousands of lives because he had lousy talent acquisition skills and couldn’t find the right generals. FDR squandered his mandate on a court-packing scheme that damaged his effectiveness with Congress for the rest of his presidency. Nixon opened the doors to China then stupidly embroiled himself in Watergate. I’ve read hundreds of biographies of leaders and have yet to find one that could quality as mistake-free. Not even close.

The fact that leaders make mistakes is more problematic in the United States than in other countries because our belief in single-person leadership is stronger. The myth of the lone leader who can walk into town and clean up the mess like the sheriffs of frontier days is still with us. Ross Perot went a long way on that myth back in 1992, and we see the same dynamic in business every time a CEO is replaced and the new CEO is anointed a “savior” by the business press. The myth also creates the unreasonable expectations that lead to our love-hate dynamic with leaders. If they do what we think they should be doing, we’re behind them; if they screw up, we feel angry and betrayed. The essence of the leadership experience is one minute you’re a hero, the next minute you’re a bum.

Leaders make mistakes. Good and even great leaders make lots of mistakes. This is a truth that both leaders and followers must accept, for it opens the door to a long-term perspective and a fairer evaluation of a leader’s contribution. We can say that the best leaders are those who learn from their mistakes, but some leaders learn all the wrong things from their mistakes, like “I’ll never trust that SOB again,” or “that’s the last time I share information with anyone.”

So let’s say instead that the best leaders demonstrate the ability and willingness to learn the right things from their mistakes. They have the ability to self-reflect, identify where they went wrong and accept responsibility for fixing the problems created by their mistakes while working to prevent similar mistakes in the future. Most importantly, they also accept that they are human and will continue to make mistakes (hopefully different mistakes) as long as they live. The true measure of the quality of a leader lies in having a clear vision and demonstrating the fortitude to remove the obstacles in the way of achieving that vision . . . especially the obstacles created by the inevitable mistakes and character flaws of the leader.

Great leaders have one thing in common: they are never finished. They never finish striving and they are never finished works themselves. Great leaders grow and change. It is clear that Earl Warren overcame a dreadful lapse in judgment to eventually make great contributions to society, and I firmly believe that most leaders can overcome even their worst mistakes.

Except for the extremely arrogant, most leaders I’ve worked with are exceptionally hard on themselves when they make a mistake—much harder than their demanding followers are. Avoid that trap and develop a long-term perspective in your work that allows you to see a mistake for what it is: a bump in the road in the middle of a very long journey. Don’t waste time staring angrily at the bump. Figure out how you allowed the bump to slow you down, then move on.