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Martin Willoughby

The New Year brings a sense of renewal and change.  Studies show that almost half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately only about 10 percent of those will actually achieve their goals. As you might imagine, resolutions to improve health and finances rank at the top of the wish list.  One of the key ways to achieve resolutions is to let them become a habit.  Psychologist Williams James noted, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”  While it is frequently said that it only takes 21 days to make a new habit stick, my review of the scientific literature on the subject indicates that it takes our brains closer to 60 days to actually rewire around a new habit.  As we enter 2015, here are a few leadership ideas to consider making a habit.

Just Say No

It’s tough to say no. We might offend someone or miss an opportunity.  A friend of mine describes the need to “chase shiny things” versus staying focused.  However, great leaders know that the ability to say no is critical.  As Gandhi said, “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”  Leadership expert Tony Schwartz similarly emphasized, “Saying no, thoughtfully, may be the most undervalued capacity of our times.” We have more options than ever and countless opportunities vying for our attention.  It is more important than ever to be purposeful about what we say yes to.  However, this is no easy task.  We often have to say no to many good things.  However, unless we say no to the “good” then we will never be able to focus our time, talent, and energy on the “great.”

Show Appreciation 

Studies have shown that for knowledge workers, money alone is insufficient to motivate performance.  Dan Pink summarized this research in his book Drive and noted that workers are best incentivized by creating an atmosphere of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  In addition, I believe that people need authentic and genuine appreciation.  As I interview employees in organizations, I am amazed at the number of them who have never been shown appreciation in any form.  Appreciation is like a gift.  There is no reason as a leader to be stingy with this gift.  Whether a subordinate, co-worker, or a boss, I highly encourage people to get in the habit of showing appreciation.

Follow Up

I believe one of the most difficult aspects of leadership today is living by the motto “say what you are going to do, and do what you say.”  As I was beginning my career, a wise businessman told me that if I would do good work, return phone calls, and do what I said then I would always have plenty of work to do.  I believe there is great truth in his advice.  As leaders, we need to make a habit of being excellent at follow up and execution.  In addition, if you have people that you are delegating to then you need to be very intentional about follow up.  One of my early mentors kept a legal pad where he wrote down every promise someone gave him regarding delivery on a project or task.  If you missed a deadline, you could expect an immediate phone call from him.  My observation was that his team knew that when they were assigned a task and deadline that he meant it.

I hope these ideas will be an encouragement to you to be the best leader you can be in 2015.  I look forward to sharing more stories about the leaders doing great things around Mississippi in future columns.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, January 9, 2015.]
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