Kim Shiflett / NASA / Creative Commons 2.0
When Microsoft first announced Windows, it didn’t create too many waves.
The first version was released in 1985 to little attention. Over the coming years, the popularity grew, but even so, it wasn’t until the late 1980s and the early 1990s that it really started to take off.
During the first few decades of Microsoft’s existence, there are many stories about how involved Bill Gates was in pretty much every aspect of the business. He apparently reviewed every single line of code personally for the first five years of the company’s existence.
They hit a few strokes of luck on their way to the top, but by all accounts, it appears unlikely that few people other than Gates could have turned them into the giants that they later became.
There is a similar story about Steve Jobs. There are countless incidents recounted by people who worked with him about his maniac focus on seemingly tiny details.
We can see now in hindsight how this focus inspired Apple’s ascent to the top.
More recently, Elon Musk has followed in both of their footsteps. He’s done so with more than one company that could have a paradigm-shifting impact on the world. Interestingly enough, he claims to spend 80% of his time working on the ground floor with design and engineering problems.
There is a pattern here.
The Focus on the Details
When you think of a leader, the natural instinct is to think big.
The automatic assumption is that at a high level, the most effective use of time is a commitment to either putting out fires or dealing with big negotiations. And that is a part of it. In fact, that’s the part most CEOs play.
The curious thing, however, is that when you look at the records of some of the most influential and competent leaders in history, much of their success can be traced down to seemingly tiny and unimportant things.
This is apparent in everyone from the likes of Thomas Edison, Alfred Sloan, and Henry Ford to people like Gates, Jobs, and Musk.
In Musk’s biography, for example, Ashlee Vance recounts a letter that Musk personally sent out to every single employee at SpaceX.
It was a warning about the increasing use of acronyms that he had observed. Musk felt that this was getting out of hand and that it could potentially lead to inefficiencies in their communication structures if they kept creating new words and new meanings in their interactions.
Keeping in mind that this is someone who’s running two of the most innovative companies in the world, works 80–100 hours per week, and has his hands in other revolutionary projects, it’s pretty insane to think that he took an hour or two out of his day to address something so seemingly minor.
That is, in fact, the secret. Musk like many others who make big progress can see the second and third-order effects of seemingly small things. While using acronyms is harmless enough, the eventual effect of confusion that it causes in the communication structures of a company can be detrimental.
Still, that’s only part of the answer.
The Discipline of a Vision
When you think of a company like Apple or Tesla, you feel something.
Microsoft has lost a little of that touch, but back in the early days, they, too, had an association with innovation and change and progress. Gates looked 20 years ahead and then focused his way forward.
If you compare that to the average brand that you interact with, it’s a notable difference. And the difference isn’t just a nice slogan or great marketing, but it’s a vision that aligns with whatever the company’s behavior is.
When Steve Jobs would do his product launches, there was a sense that he wasn’t talking to the crowd at all. Whether or not you believe that Apple did think differently or if they were changing the world or not, you knew just by looking at him that at least he did.
He knew where he was going, and he was going to take Apple with him.
Today, if you look at many of Musk’s interviews or product launches, you see something similar. He’s not quite the public speaker that Jobs was, nor does he have that charm, but it’s similarly evident that when he talks about taking humanity to Mars that this is all a part of something far bigger.
The secret weapon here is strategic imagination, and it’s the second part of what makes people who really make a dent in the world who they are.
The Power of the Shaper Effect
Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, and he’s in the process of finding a replacement for himself.
In his book Principles, he shares that he has spent the last few years analyzing what makes some people more effective than others at getting large-scale results while leading big companies.
Most people that take over after revolutionary founders like Jobs or Gates generally don’t do as well, and in order to avoid a similar fate for his own company, he wanted to better understand what differentiates these people.
Over the years, with the help of leading researchers, Dalio has developed testing tools to improve his understanding of who he hires and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
A couple of years ago, he called up both Gates and Musk, among other people who have achieved unique success, to take part in a few of these tests.
Like himself, he found that most of these people can be characterized as shapers, and the identifier of a shaper is that they are both tactically and strategically astute in their decisions.
In other words, while most people have a strength in one or the other, shapers are just as effective when it comes to the lower-level implementation stuff that has to do with seemingly trivial details as they are with outlining a realistic, but powerful, higher-level vision to guide them throughout the process.
Effective achievement is best harnessed by finding harmony in opposites.
What Does This Mean?
What this doesn’t mean is that you can only succeed if you’re a shaper.
Depending on what you do and how your daily responsibilities play out, the chances are that you have a natural and refined strength in one over the other.
If you’re working for a non-profit directly serving the people you’re helping, you’re likely more tactically astute and are more heavily focused on getting the smaller day to day things right.
On the other hand, if you’re a higher-level executive at a bank, you’re hired primarily to guide the strategy and the vision over the course of years and decades in order to ensure that you’re moving in the right direction.
That said, in both of those hypothetical positions, it’s still worth picking up exposure to the other side. As in the case of Musk, Jobs, and Gates, the effect of being a shaper isn’t just additive. It grows by an order of magnitude.
When you combine both of these with each other, you see things that few others do. When you can pull from opposite ends, you’re able to get subtle things that are otherwise invisible right from the start.
Being a shaper gives you a wider lens through which to see the world.
The result? You accomplish things most people don’t even dream about.