What "House" Are You Building, Is It Built By Your Actions?

Jul 08, 2013 1 Min Read
built by actions
Leaders Balance Contemplation And Actions


A few years ago, I heard about an elderly construction worker who wanted to quit. He told his boss of his plans to leave. His boss was sorry to see such an excellent worker go and asked him to build one last house as a personal favour.

The construction worker said yes, but his heart was not in his work. There was no passion left. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials, cutting corners to get the work done. Finally, when the house was finished, his boss handed him the keys to the house saying, “This is your house. It’s my gift to you.” The construction worker was stunned and full of regret as he knew he was sloppy working on it. If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently.

Isn’t it the same with us? Often we work hard but after a point in time, we dish out less than stellar performances. Our attitudes differ but we console ourselves by saying it doesn’t matter. But in most cases, it does matter. Each day, we build our lives, one transaction at a time. Each day counts as we build our life’s building. When I worked at General Electric (GE), people always spoke about the “house that Jack built.” Jack Welch, painstakingly, for more than 20 years, built the foundation of GE, then its rooms, roof and finally completed a remarkable turnaround. This took patience, time and years.

When we don’t get the promotion we crave, or we fail to get what others get, we are surprised. Could it be because the house we built doesn’t have strong foundations or good materials? It’s not just last year’s performance or last week’s deal that counts – it is your cumulative effectiveness on a daily basis.

So, how does one ensure that you are effective daily? Based on our research, it requires an equilibrium of action and reflection. While most leaders are biased towards action, the best leader balances contemplation and action, creating daily solitude for effective action.

Ineffective Leaders

Most leaders say the resource they lack most is time. But if you really observe managers for a day, you will see them rushing to meetings, constantly checking theirBlackberry, dodging fires believing they are attending to important matters.

For 10 years, Bruch and Ghoshal observed behaviours of busy managers. Their conclusions: 90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective actions and activities. A mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner. These 10% are usually classified as great leaders.

Worst still, psychiatrist John Diamond found that 90% of people “hate their work”. They come to work to punch their time clock and can’t wait to go home. The difference between leaders who love their jobs and those that don’t is that they take time daily to re-energise themselves and focus through reflection.


The practice of reflection goes back centuries and is rooted in numerous institutions including the Japanese samurai. Ben Franklin, one of my leadership heroes, had a rather systematic approach to reflection, which was a fundamental part of his daily life. He developed a list of 13 virtues and each day he evaluated his leadership relative to these virtues.

A sincere examination of ourselves is never easy. It involves the willingness to face and acknowledge our mistakes, failure and shortcomings. Albert Schweitzer, Nobel winner, believes reflection in life is critical to leadership as it allows you to take into “account what you have neglected in thoughtlessness”.

Interestingly, a key step in the Alcoholics Anonymous programme asks participants to make a probing and courageous moral inventory. Steve Jobs went to India to reflect prior to starting Apple.

In business, reflection provides an opportunity to consider the ramifications of the services they provide and how to keep raising the bar. Businesses grow when they look within.

So, what does one achieve by reflection and contemplation? Productive action relies on a combination of three traits:

Focus- the ability to zero in on an objective and see the task to completion.

Energy- the vitality that comes from concentrated personal commitment.

Learning- the ability to correct past mistakes and improve oneself.

Focus without energy results in lethargic execution or burnout. Energy without focus leads to aimlessness or artificial busyness. And not learning from your mistakes ensures you repeat them.

All three pieces can only be obtained through reflection. Procrastinators are usually people with low levels of energy and focus. Leaders with high focus but low energy never inspire and generally end up ostracising the troops. Managers with high energy but low focus confuse their employees with chaotic activity.

Reflective managers are purpose-driven with high energy levels, learning from their mistakes. They start their day in reflection to ensure purposeful execution and action.


Confucius once said, “a man who chases two rabbits catches neither!” In Star Wars Episode 1, Qui-Gon says to the young Jedi Anakin, “Always remember, your focus determines your reality”. There is an ounce of truth in that Jedi wisdom. A focused person usually attains his/her goals.

At the end of a tiring day, if we focus on how tired we are, generally we will remain tired and end up vegetating in front of the TV. If we re-focus the mind from being tired to needing to be healthy, there is a bigger likelihood we will exercise.

It is easy to stray with distractions like the TV, Internet and mobile devices that we have today. These distractions can lead us off-tangent, stealing our focusing power. Reflection corrects that.

Energy & Passion

Reflection generates passion and energy. Energy comes from passion. Passion is self-generated as you can motivate yourself to be excited about what you do.

Author Bill Strickland writes: “Passions are irresistible. They’re the ideas, hopes, and possibilities your mind naturally gravitates to, the things you would focus your time and attention on”.

Strickland believes that only by following your passion will you unlock your deepest potential. “I never saw a meaningful life that wasn’t based on passion. And I never saw a life full of passion that wasn’t, in some important way, extraordinary.”

Learning From Mistakes

Reflection allows us to learn from mistakes. We all make mistakes – I have done so spectacularly at times. We have all been in situations where things don’t go exactly to plan. But how often do we take the time to sit down to reflect on where it all went wrong?

Plato’s great words “know thyself” imply that a lifetime of self-investigation is the cornerstone for knowledge. John Dewey states, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In fact, the Kolb Learning Cycle is based on the belief that learning for real comprehension comes from a sequence of experience, reflection, abstraction, and action. All learning can come only through reflection.

Check Your Attitudes Daily

Living an extraordinary life is done internally through the daily positive alignment of your attitude. Your attitudes and the choices you make today build the house you live in tomorrow. Build wisely! Build with commitment, pride, joy, love and passion.

Your attitude is contagious and sets the mood for those around you. Your employees get excited when you are excited. They are energised when you are. Plato opened up The Academy in Athens at the age of 40, when life expectancy was 36. He ran this first university, training Aristotle and others, until he was 80. Pursuing focused positive dreams arms one with high energy and leads to an extended, rewarding life.

I don’t have time to think!

This is a pretty common reaction: I don’t have time to reflect.

Which begs the question: Do you have time to make the same mistakes over and over again? Or to remain unfocused, running around like a headless chicken? Or lack energy to fulfil your dreams?

I remember an old boss once told me that I was not paid to sit around and think. On hindsight, that was probably the worst advice I received. Leaders should spend at least a quarter of their time thinking about the future of their company and reflecting on the past. It may seem ludicrous to spend time reflecting but “real work” can only be done right when you know where you are going and have the energy to get there.

Final Thoughts

If we could do things over, we probably would do many things differently. And better. But the problem is, we cannot go back. We are just like the construction worker. Each day we hammer a nail, place a board, or erect a wall in our career, family and lives. Are you doing it with focus and energy? Are we improving ourselves by learning from our mistakes?

If the fire in our eyes has diminished and we are going through life on auto-pilot, with the joy of life seemingly leaked out, it is time to take stock of life and reflect.

Socrates, Ben Franklin and most great leaders believed that reflection led to a productive and fulfilling life. And don’t say you don’t have time. After all, as Buddha aptly puts it, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”

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Tags: Be A Leader, Hard Talk


Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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