The dichotomy of detail: meticulousness can be your best friend, or it can be your worst enemy.

On one side of the dichotomy, we have John Wooden, universally known as the all-time greatest head coach in college basketball history. With his UCLA Bruins, he won 80% of the games he coached, including 10 National Championships in a 12-year span from 1964 to 1975. He was a 5-time National Coach of the Year. He now has his name emblazoned on the annual award for best college player. Oh, and by the way, he also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. The man has accomplished everything one could set out to accomplish as a basketball coach and a leader.

Coach Wooden has also written several books on his successes as a leader, along with the comprehensive framework he developed called the Pyramid of Success, which would shape and guide his team’s every decision, behavior, and habit. But before any of that could happen, before any games were played, before any practices were held, his first lesson to his players was… on how to pull up their socks and put on their shoes correctly.

This was not a joke. This was not a metaphor. Coach Wooden was always meticulously thoughtful, and by ensuring his players had their socks pulled up, it would also ensure that they did not develop blisters on their feet when running. The first thing the players heard from the Hall of Fame coach when they walked into the gym was not on how to achieve greatness, not how to win championships, but how to put their shoes and socks on correctly. This set the tone for how the team would operate. It was this level of attention to detail that made John Wooden the greatest of all time. As he once said, “it’s the little details that make the big things come about.”

While it is essential to cultivate a sharp eye for detail, it is equally essential to know which details are worth your sweat and which ones aren’t. For example, I’ve noticed in a couple of my previous essays that there were occasional silly typos. I know in the grand scheme of things that those typos don’t matter, and no one expects perfection, yet those mistakes still kill me when I catch them. Because, for a writer, an innocent typo here, and a careless mistake there will add up in the reader’s mind. It will withdraw small amounts from the writer’s credibility bank account, eventually leading to bankruptcy. Fixing typos and pulling up your socks are details worth sweating over.

On the other side of this dichotomy, George Allen was a relatively successful NFL coach during the 1970s, who was also known for being a stickler for details. In his team’s preparation to play in Super Bowl VII, he sent a staff member to the stadium a few days prior to the game to track the movement of the sun during the hours when the game was to be played. This was an example of a worthy detail, as he could make decisions based on where the blinding southern California sun would be. But years later, he would take his attention to detail overboard. In the most blatant example, he took time to design a more efficient lunch line for his players. He wanted to reduce the amount of time they had to wait in line to eat by creating one line for players who wanted crackers with their soup, and one line for players who didn’t want crackers. He was fired shortly afterward.

The phrase “every detail matters” can be misleading. Like George Allen, it can lead you down the wrong rabbit hole and could cost you your job. What should be said is, “every detail that matters, matters.” As a leader, to ensure that the details you are focusing on are worth your attention and actually matter, ask yourself three things:

A) If ignored, will this harm the team’s progress?

B) If implemented, will it take time away from my actual priorities?

C) Will this detail, if implemented, set the right tone for the organization?

Such is the dichotomy of detail: every detail that matters, matters. If you, as a leader, don’t care about the smallest relevant details, why should anyone else? Why should your subordinates care? It’s your job to ensure that they understand the importance of your attention to detail. Like in Chinese water torture, individual drips of water may not register in one’s mind. Isolated typos in an essay may not register in the reader’s mind. The amount of carbs in chicken nuggets may not register in the dieter’s mind. But over time, these small relevant details will grow into ugly monsters that you cannot sweep under the rug.

This is the dichotomy of detail. Pull your socks up, but don’t sweat the lunch lines.

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