Act Small to Grow Big

Leaders don’t come to the table with the full set of skills they need to engage, energize, and lead their teams. Ideally, organizations would do more to foster leadership development, but the reality is that many organizations are limited in how they ensure the success of their organization for years to come. When asked, most organizations know that developing leaders is important to their success and a major factor in retention, and yet the majority of organizations don’t offer robust leadership development options. Unfortunately, this leaves their leaders with skill gaps and blind spots that can derail organizational effectiveness.

It also means that leaders are now in the age of “DIY” leadership development. Leaders at all levels must learn to identify their gaps, uncover their blind spots, and strengthen their skills. But, if organizations won’t invest in costly leadership development programs, it is not reasonable to expect individuals to fund their own leadership development either. Luckily, leaders don’t have to make huge investments in their development. Leaders can take small, continuous, steps to form better leadership behaviors; a concept referred to as micro-habits. Too often, we pounce on opportunities for improvement with big goals – only to find ourselves locked into a self-defeating cycle. As high achievers, leaders are programmed to “go big” and set “big hairy audacious goals.” But big goals can be very burdensome and require a daunting effort to accomplish and sustain, and falling short creates a negative spiral of discouragement and future action.

It’s great to think big, but the way to achieve big is to start small – by focusing on micro-habits. Micro-habits are small components of a larger habit. By breaking down a “big hairy audacious goal” into smaller, more achievable ones that you build on overtime, you achieve the big goals. For example, if you want to run a marathon but have never gone for a jog, a good micro-habit may be to run in place during commercial breaks of your favorite television show. The key to success with a micro-habit is that you should be able to perform it with minimal effort every day, at the same time every day, and ideally tied to a current ritual or habit that you do every day without thinking – so that you eventually do the micro-habit without thinking as well.

Here are 3 small “micro-habits” developing leaders can do to have a big impact on their leadership effectiveness:

1. Build Your Self-Awareness. Daniel Goleman, PhD, is a well-known author and researcher on leadership who wrote the bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. According to Dr. Goleman, “If your emotional abilities aren't in hand if you don't have self-awareness if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far." To truly know yourself is the most important leadership skill you can possess. When you know who you are, you understand your purpose, you become more confident, you know what you need to do, and you begin making a bigger impact in your career. To know yourself, try developing these two micro-habits:

a. Be quiet. Many people are afraid of being still and silent for a few moments because they are uncomfortable with being completely truthful with themselves. But you cannot effectively lead others if you don’t know yourself. Rather than booking every minute of the day with meetings, try to protect a few minutes each day to silently reflect on how you presented yourself today. What were the good, the bad, and the ugly moments of your day? What would you like to be better at next time? For me, I found the best time was to do this right before I left the office to drive home. Others find the best time is to reflect on yesterday, first thing in the morning. Find a few minutes that works for you, dedicate that time to silent reflection, and commit to doing it each day.

b. Ask for feedback. If you don’t know yourself, hearing what others have to say about you is a helpful practice. Ask your leaders, peers, and team members two simple questions: “What do you admire most about me?” and “What things do you think I need to work on?” Even though their opinion might not be perfect, their feedback will probably shine a light on a few areas you can build on and a few you can at least take a second look at.

2. Clarify the Priorities. As many as 70% of organizational strategic initiatives fail, and it’s because 95% of the organization’s employees don’t know what the strategic initiatives are. Perhaps the most foundational leadership skill needed is strategic prioritization. Many leaders determine what work to focus on using criteria such as: “what’s urgent, what’s new, and what’s familiar.” The thing missing is “what’s most important” (i.e. tasks that advance the organization’s strategic initiatives and are intrinsically motivating or fulfilling for the team). Identifying priorities is a giant first step to generating engagement and excitement among the team. Leaders can clarify the strategic priorities by meeting with their leadership to confirm the strategic priorities of the organization. Then, practice a daily micro-habit of reviewing their calendar, daily, to make sure at least one-quarter of their day is focused on the effort that directly supports a strategic initiative or business need.

3. Demonstrate Communication. Communication is one of the most difficult skills to master. Perhaps more difficult than mastering it is understanding what communication really is. Rather than pushing out more emails, newsletters, and communication boards, consider leaving 15 minutes early for lunch and purposefully walk through your team’s work area to observe and listen to the work that is going on, ask an employee how their work is achieving the goals of the department today, and what support they need to finish the day, strong.

When you want to develop as a leader, jumping into the deep end on a major goal is often counter-productive. Instead, make tiny, incremental adjustments until they are part of your routine. It’s hard to think small in the beginning, but the benefit of acting small is to grow bigger and better over time.

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