It may be that like me you are using this unique time to read some books you have been meaning to read for some time. I am currently devouring a book called ‘Super Human’ by Rowan Hooper that my son bought me for Christmas (he was obviously thinking about his father when he bought it ☺). The book interrogates the lives of extraordinary human beings who live their lives at the extremes of mental and physical capability.
One of the areas it explores is that of Focus. The ability to sustain concentration and diligence of effort around a specific activity i.e. driving at high speed in a F1 race car or a lifelong ambition to sail around the world, first declared aged 4. It is this ability to retain desire and discipline towards a declared goal that seems to set these folks apart.
As I read, I reflected that this lockdown season does provide many of us with an opportunity to focus on growth and change some things that in the normal frenetic activity of life we struggle to prioritise. One of the immense privileges of being a coach is partnering with leaders who commit to a process of change and growth and observing that transition taking place. These journeys often begin with a vision of a new self — a more effective, better, fitter, slimmer, healthier version of self. For those of us in corporate life they are often changed mindsets and behaviours — less cynical, negative or controlling, more positive, open and courageous etc. The clearer the vision the better, the more vivid detail we give it, the more it comes to life in our consciousness.
A fascinating piece of research (‘What is the self’, New Scientist, April 22nd 2017) shows how important this is. Using neuro-imaging technology researchers captured how the brain reacts when the research subjects were asked to think of themselves as they were on that day. Then they were asked to think about a stranger they had met recently, a waiter, garage attendant etc and noticed that neurologically the brain was stimulated differently. Then they were asked to think of themselves a number of years into the future and noted that the brain responded in the same way it did when thinking of the stranger. Our future self is like a stranger to us and in that sense a journey of change consists of the habits and rituals that help us build intimacy with that new self.
It could be that some of you might want to make the most of this opportunity of a different working rhythm and hunt down some of those changes in your leadership behaviour or private life that you have been promising yourself for some time. If so, the following might be helpful.
Describe — In the most intimate detail, write down the nature of the change, what will you be doing, thinking and feeling differently when this change takes place. Create an outline of what your future state will look like and then fill it in with full visual colour. Capture this in a journal or on your phone in some way. If you can, create some kind of image, anything that could visually or conceptually represent in as powerful a way as possible your desired future state. The aim is to have a motivating, inspiring prompt that reminds you regularly of the vision you are chasing.
Dedicate — what will you choose to do every day to take you towards this goal. Consider beginning each day reminding yourself of your desired change and future state, literally read it or recite it to yourself. One of the young F1 drivers interviewed by Hooper described this mindset “I take it day by day and win the day, every day. Win the day, that’s what your focus has to be towards”. I really like that concept of seeing each day as a competitive challenge with ourselves towards our desired state, figuring out new and fresh ways to win and get to intimately know our future self. There may be new habits you commit to, fresh ways of starting or acting during the day. In more normal times I have heard of some who chose to change their commute journey, getting in a different train carriage or driving a different route. Obviously this isn’t possible right now, but the aim is to do anything creative that signals to the brain that change is afoot. This may sound silly but changing deeply embedded bad habits is a tough job and so we need to use all means available to us to interrupt the norm to help dial in change. Keep some kind of record of progress, success and failures, celebrating the former and learning from the latter. Remember, what gets measured is often what gets done.
Declare — tell at least one trusted person what it is you are aiming to do and ask them to support you by regularly asking you questions of accountability about your choices, success and failure. This is where many fall away from their desired change, fearing the vulnerability of genuine accountability. In my experience as a coach and a fellow struggler, a desire for personal change without adequate accountability is called ‘wishful thinking’ and nothing else. Psychotherapists talk of the importance of ‘therapeutic partners’ being key to effective change and transition. For most of us that will mean our close mates, work colleagues, mentors or professional coaches, anyone who is committed enough to us to tell us the truth and eyeball us when necessary. For this to work effectively agree a regular rhythm of conversations to ensure this adds the critical value such accountability can bring.
Few of us will become part of the ‘Superhuman’ elite that Hooper describes. However, any of us who take our leadership seriously can focus some time and energy that will enable us to grow and get better, and ultimately become more of the leader we are able to be.