Leadership Resolution 4 – What bacteria can teach us about better leadership practice

By Heather Campbell

Following up on my last article so I can share the fourth and final Leadership Resolution before we get too far into 2021. Otherwise, it’s getting a bit late for New Year commitments 😊.

Over the last few weeks I’ve shared three resolutions that leaders can take to significantly increase performance and productivity within their teams when done effectively. But effectiveness isn’t the only criterion. To really get results we need to learn a lesson from the worlds of bacteria and Warren Buffett. What connects them? Why, exponential growth.

Human beings don’t really get the power of exponential growth. Sure, we understand it intellectually, but it doesn’t sit well with us psychologically. We’re impatient for results and therefore over-estimate how much can be gained in the short-term and under-estimate how much can be gained in the long-term. Busy, driven leaders, dealing with the constant pressure of ambiguity and uncertainty fall into this short-termism trap repeatedly. Start a new leadership practice and don’t see results fast?  Clearly the practice doesn’t work so we stop it. 

We know in our hearts that we need to keep up our new practices for longer if we really want to get the benefit and yet somehow our minds tell us that it isn’t worth the effort. That it’s better to give up or to switch focus.

That’s why, the fourth and final Leadership Resolution I’m recommending for 2021 is this – whether you select one of the three resolutions I have proposed or have implemented something else – compliment this new practice with the habit of consistency over the long-term. Stick with it long enough to see the exponential growth that awaits after a start that has been longer, slower and steadier than you wanted it to be. That way, you will reap the rewards for your efforts and see the impact on your team’s performance and productivity.

All well and good, but how do you not simply give up before you get that exponential growth? Positive intent and willpower are rarely enough. Here are three key points I’d recommend.

  1. This first tip might seem counter-intuitive because, having said you need to commit long-term, keep your focus short-term. Depending on the size of the change, I recommend working with a six-week to three-month timeframe. This is long enough to see an impact and short enough to keep you motivated. Commit to a short-term plan, review it at the end of that period and then set your next short-term plan to move forward. Let’s take committing to regular one-two-ones as per Resolution 1 that I recommended at the start of January. Rather than setting up your one-to-ones for the full year ahead, put them in your diary for a three-month block, then at the end of three months, set dates for the next block. Short-term focus helps us commit. Now, if you’re a leader who is already a convert to regular one-to-ones, and you schedule these for a full 12 months, that’s fine. Stick with it. Remember here, we’re talking about setting up new practices.
  2. Update your knowledge and skills in relation to your desired leadership practice. Sometimes we believe we can do something just because we have had the idea. For example, let’s say you have decided to get better at balancing giving direction with coaching your team, as I wrote about in Resolution 3. Don’t assume that you know how to do this because you learned about Hershey & Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model 10 years ago. Go back and refine your understanding. How has this been updated over the years? What does new research tell us that will help inform our practice today? Learning is energising and refreshing; that, alone, can be enough to keep us committed to the new practice.
  3. Start small and keep your eye on progress rather than fixating on your goal. Too much focus on our goal is actually counter-productive because the result we want to achieve seems too far away, and we fall short of perfection so often. On the other hand, when it comes to small steps and regular progress, research suggests that a 4% stretch is a good level of progress that keeps us motivated long-term. I know it seems too small as to be hardly worth the effort, but 4% compounded every six weeks over a year can lead to significant change. My second resolution related to building better leadership communication practices. Focus on refining a new aspect of your communication style every six weeks over the next 12 months, and you will be substantially more effective by 2022.

All of these are about staying focussed long enough to enjoy the benefits of exponential growth.

And that brings me right back to bacteria and Warren Buffett. I love Warren’s quotable quotes, but he gets enough air-time already. Let’s hear it for the humble bacteria instead.  The puzzle goes: you put one bacterium into a glass jar at 23:00 hours, and that bacterium doubles in size and splits into two at 23:01. These two bacteria double in size and split into two one minute later and so the process continues minute by minute. The jar is half full at one minute to midnight. At what time will the jar be full? And, at what time will you fill a further three identical glass jars? The answers are, of course, midnight and two minutes past midnight. The power of exponential growth writ large.

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