Think Big, Act Small


You hear it all the time, “It’s the little things” that make all the difference. Whether it’s in our personal or professional lives, our attention to detail is often the differentiator between mediocre and magnificent. I learned this lesson from a former group president of a great Fortune 500 company. His name is John Babiarz and, at the time, he was tasked with leading a billion dollar managed services company in the health care space. John’s company offered services in broad areas including: food and facilities management, maintenance, call centers, security and clinical technology equipment services in thousands of sites across the country. Despite that scope, as its leader, he always made time to travel and connect with his clients and employees. On one such trip, I learned a valuable lesson.

As a member of the senior leadership team, it was not uncommon for me to travel with John to meet with some of our largest clients. On this day, we traveled to Texas for a negotiation and site visit with one of the largest and most prestigious hospital systems in the country. After the formal meeting, we embarked on a tour of the impressive facility. As you can imagine, the staff worked overtime to make sure the hospital was spotless as we toured. John graciously met and acknowledged the hard work of the staff as we visited.  And then it happened. He stopped talking, squinted his eyes and starred into the distance down the hall. I turned and looked, we all turned and looked, I didn’t see anything. Without a word, John slowly made his way all the way down the long hallway. He bent over and picked up what appeared to be a small cigarette butt and, without saying anything, quietly deposited it in a trash bin. You could see that what he did had an impact on the staff. The president of this big company was not above stopping and going out of his way to pick up the smallest piece of trash for his customer.

When I later asked John about this, he went into long detail about how critical cleanliness is in the hospital setting.  How it often drives prestigious hospital rankings. How that is often the way infectious disease is spread and how in a hospital keeping the environment pristine is an important life and death issue that can significantly impact public health. I got it. I never forgot that lesson. It’s the little things.

Great leaders think BIG and act SMALL. Finding the right balance between “digging in” on details (and risk getting caught up in the minutia) and the big thinking strategic leadership your direct reports require from you is always a challenge. You can’t do just one or the other. The best leaders strike a careful balance of both. You can’t set a powerful and aspirational vision and not occasionally examine and confirm with specificity whether it’s being implemented and whether you are making true progress. You can’t set a bold road map and personally stray off the course. Your everyday actions must be consistent with the broader vision you have set for the organization. Great leaders find the delicate balance.


Leadership 101 requires a leader to set a clear vision, mission and core values for the organization. The leader must also work very hard to personally exemplify those values.  Far too often leaders fall short of the standards they have set for the organization. We have all known that leader: “do as I say, not as I do.” That is not authentic and just doesn’t work. The effort may start off well enough but sooner or later (and usually when you’re faced with real challenges) the failure to truly embrace and reflect your vision shows up. If you are not meeting your goals as an organization, first look at whether your leaders (across the board) reflect the type of success you expect. If they do, ask yourself whether they are effectively driving the blueprint for success through the organization. That is something that requires everyday small actions and constant communication to achieve. (See my Leadership,-Brick-by-Brick” post)


My daughter and I at a neighborhood cleanup.

My daughter and I at a neighborhood cleanup.

Great leaders do the small things to live their values everyday. After they’ve set the broader vision, they ensure others in the organization are delivering with behaviors consistent with that vision on the front line. They personally live those values by demonstrating their personal commitment to the vision and the values of the organization. They dig in with probing questions, receive frequent briefings and are a real physical presence in the field to see outcomes and results for themselves. In doing so, they communicate a high level of commitment and engagement. I’m not talking about grand gestures but small behaviors and interactions that make all the difference.

Today, I frequently travel between my building and City Hall, almost every day, to meet with the Mayor and Chief of Staff. Because of that lesson, as I make the short walk across the street, I try to pick up just one small piece of litter every day. I do that not just for the symbolic gesture, but as a reminder that if we all do small acts, we can drive big change in our City. The big vision is we all need to be working to clean up our City. The small act is the one thing I try to do everyday that sends a broader message. Whether you are a City Manager, Deputy Mayor, a company president or one of our everyday heroes, if we all think big and act small, we can make our worlds a better place. How do you think big and act small?

Rich headshot 1

Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.

One thought on “Think Big, Act Small

  1. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you could be a great author.I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will often come back in the foreseeable future.
    I want to encourage one to continue your great work, have a
    nice weekend!

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