The Goal Obsession

April 4, 2023

by Stephen T. Messenger

A few weeks ago, we discussed the importance of having goals and working towards them, but is there such a thing as being too obsessed with meeting objectives?

I’m a goal oriented (obsessed?) person by nature. I’ll lay out big goals for myself at the beginning, middle, and end of days, weeks, or years and work relentlessly to accomplish them. However, these goals are often at the expense of other things.

Wanting to finish work goals after the day is over often means I’m rolling into the house later than I should at the expense of family time. Finishing a degree program or working out early comes at the expense of sleep. And certain projects at work take precedence over just spending time with people.

The Twenty-First Habit

Marshall Goldsmith, in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, talks of twenty-one bad habits that very successful leaders often have. These are flaws in their character that can often be corrected by simply stopping certain behaviors.

His last bad habit, to which he greatly emphasizes, is goal obsession. These are people so focused on making the big sale, earning the corner office, or meeting company projections that they ignore everything around them.

It manifests in different results. Sometimes it comes in the form of taking credit from other people. Sometimes it’s at the expense of a marriage. But in every case, goal obsession is like the carriage horse walking around with blinders on. The horse only knows it should be going straight and everything to the right and left simply doesn’t matter.

The Good Samaritan

A well-known parable is of the Good Samaritan. To sum it up, there was a Jewish man beaten by robbers and left to die. Two religious men purposefully walked by him. A third man was a Samaritan—enemies of the Jews—but he stopped, bandaged the man, took him to a safe place, and paid to have him cared after.

Goldsmith discussed a Princeton Theological Seminar experiment from 1973 where theology students were tasked to give a presentation about the parable of the good Samaritan across campus. They were then told they were late to their speech and needed to hurry to the chapel.

Along the way, they encountered an actor playing the role of an injured man, much like the Samaritan from the parable. Ironically, only 10% of the seminary students stopped to help the man while the other 90% hurried to give their speech on the importance of helping others.

This is an example of how goal obsession can cloud our judgement. We become so fixated on one thing that our proverbial blinders block other important issues happening around us.

Take a Breath

So, what’s a leader to do? We already understand that goals are an important part of achieving success, but paradoxically, becoming too fixated on them often leads to missed opportunities.

The simple answer is to always keep in mind the overarching organizational objectives.

Completing tasks moves us closer to our end goals. But when we prioritize a task over our actual priorities and values, we’re missing the point.

In the Samaritan example, the students of theology knew God’s calling to love their neighbor as themselves. It’s the whole point of the story they’re about to preach. If they stop to help the man, their example is a much more powerful lesson than talking about it in public.

Yet, if they literally walk over a person in need and someone in their audience sees this, the crowd could easily label the student a hypocrite with no credibility.

That’s why it’s important, even when in a time crunch, to stop and take a breath. See the situation that is going on around you and determine if this new situation is a red herring or something that contributes materially to organizational objectives.

There’s a Lot Going On

Yes, leaders have many things to manage on their plate and there’s a lot going on. But that’s why you’re in charge. To set big goals and objectives, lead your team to desired results, and understand what distracts your team and what enables them.

Goal orientation is great! Goal obsession, not so much!

Take off the blinders, see the whole picture, accomplish your goals, and seize emerging opportunities while ignoring distractors.  

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