As leaders, according to Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), we suffer from two major problems. They are as follows:
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
From my experience, I think Newport is spot on. We as leader do tend toward the path of easiest behaviors and seeing busy as the definition of success. Therefore, our challenge as leaders is to role model something different.
First, to overcome the path of least resistance and busyness as proxy for productivity, we need to get a coach, inside or outside the organization, and/or a mentor. These individuals, who we respect, will provide us with feedback and perspective. They will help us to role model learning rather than just talk about learning.
When I reflect on the best mentors I’ve encountered in my life, they all focused on a couple of small but important things. For example, be more conscious of how you choose to spend your energy and time. Choice is an action, and we always have control over how we choose. Greg McKeown in his excellent book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Crown Business, 2014) builds on this concept and asks us to think deeply about our choices.
I think about this because of a recent experience. I was participating in a graduation dinner for an extended leadership training that I had just completed. The young fellow sitting next to me asked a great question: “I really like this job and I want to stay here for the rest of my career. I have 20+ more years until I retire. How do I not burn out from all of the work?”
The older woman executive on his other side replied, “Keep learning, and recognize that the job will change over time. And that you will change over time in the job too.”
When he was done pondering this insight, I responded. “Be curious in a positive way. Seek to understand more than to be understood. Say to people ‘Tell me more.’ This is a powerful act as a leader. And finally, keep reading.”
He finished his beer and said “I can do this. I thought it would be big stuff but I have realized now that these little things are big things.”
I smiled and nodded. Constant learning is all about doing the little things that have a big impact.