Small steps today, significant change tomorrow
There’s so much written about what it means to be a great leader and how to deal with those with bad leadership skills – but a conversation I had recently led me to think, “How does someone genuinely make improvements to become an effective leader?”
The conversation was with an old friend who, despite leading a fairly successful business, was aware that he could be a much better leader.
He had taken initial steps to improve his leadership style and read lots on practices such as emotional intelligence, mindfulness, empathy, and establishing a work-life balance.
But as he put it, “I know these are great ways to become a better leader, and that they help so many people to develop themselves, but it seems a bit too complicated for me.”
“I don’t have much time to really cultivate mindfulness or emotional intelligence to a substantial degree. I barely get time to eat during the day!”
This was someone who was eager to grow to become a better leader for his team. As is so often the case, however, methods of personal development can sound great and then life comes along with a million different things that demand our attention.
While some might say, “He should find the time – it’s not healthy to always be busy,” any founder or chief executive officer of a business will know that this well-meaning advice is easier said than done.
Reframe your thoughts
Often, when we have a problem to tackle − especially one that relates to ourselves − we tend to look for the major, single-fix solution.
Unfortunately, such a thing doesn’t exist when it comes to significant obstacles. Instead, we have to take a different approach to our situation − one that fits in with our commitments, circumstances, and temperament.
For example, if someone has always lived life “on the go”, advising them to slow down and find time is, well, a waste of time. You might as well try to encourage a sloth to hurry up.
Of course, we are also habituated in our behaviours that we either don’t know where to begin to change them, or we simply have a resistance − conscious or otherwise − to changing our familiar ways.
Reflecting on my friend’s situation after listening to his story, I asked him a simple question. It had nothing to do with meditation or becoming more socially aware.
I make my question as simple as possible:
What small thing can you begin to work on that you’d be willing to work on, right now?
The reason I framed the question this way is because it encourages a major shift in the person’s perspective.
Now, they’re no longer thinking about any end goal and all the steps it might take to get there, which can be demotivating.
Instead, they’re thinking about what’s manageable now − this instant − that would help them to take the first step in the right direction.
I advised my friend that he should forget about the bigger picture for the moment. What could he do today to bring about a small, positive change?
“Well, I guess I could start by walling off 20 minutes each day for lunch, making sure I have no interruptions,” he said.
“That wouldn’t be so challenging, I suppose, and if I can manage that, then I could make additional small changes until they start adding up to bigger ones.”
Take small steps
If you’ve ever been overwhelmed, you’ll know that it’s difficult to focus on separating tasks into clear chunks of time.
Everything seems to come flooding in at once and the mind goes into survival mode – meaning that there’s little time to stop and think rationally about how you can go about managing your time efficiently.
Needless to say, practices such as mindfulness or cultivating empathy are great approaches that bring many benefits to our lives.
However, for many people, the reality is that they need something that works now, an approach through which they can see immediate results and get back some sense of control.
Taking a minute to think about what small thing you can work on now can yield big results.
For a busy person, that small thing might just be taking 20 minutes out of each day that previously seemed impossible.
That small change is actually a huge step. Not only does it show that you’re committed to improving for your own sake and for others, but you’re also gaining control in a positive way that will automatically lead to more benefits as time goes on.
Instead of looking at the end goal, looking and aiming at the next objective along the way empowers you to take the wheel and go a little further along the road each time.
Maybe a month’s worth of taking 20-minute lunch breaks leads to another step that sees you taking 30-minute lunch breaks with a colleague, twice a week.
From there, you get to know people better, which naturally increases your empathy and ability to connect with others.
Perhaps from that point as a leader, you get to know what issues are affecting people.
With that, you take steps to deal with each one of those issues effectively, which in turn boosts team morale, engagement and commitment to the organisation. And it all started with that one decision to take a 20-minute break each day.
Image | stockunlimited
Inspire change slowly
We should never underestimate the power of taking small steps. There’s always a temptation to aim high and go the extra mile.
If you can manage to do that, good on you – it’s great to be able to take giant leaps forward. On the other hand, there’s so much to be said for taking smaller steps when necessary.
Not only do they sustain our motivation as each step offers a small victory along the way, but they provide us with valuable insights into who we are.
As we develop greater self-awareness, we are in a much stronger position to understand and meet the needs of others around us.
In short, we become the great leaders we imagined ourselves to be.
Take charge now, and be a leader!
This article first appeared on LinkedIn.