The Limitations of Willpower

It’s New Year’s Day.  The day when we set goals and start to martial our willpower to achieving them. If you are naturally driven and focused, you’re probably one of those rare folks who actually accomplishes her New Year’s Resolutions.  Willpower can be a real force for good, especially as a leader.  Driving and self-discipline allow you achieve more, reach higher heights, and do it all in less time.  And it can propel your team into doing the same.  In our organizations and culture at large, ‘drive’ has very positive connotations.

But is it possible to have too much drive?  Absolutely.  It is possible to impose your own goals, timing and standards so rigidly that you actually slow progress down.  When this happens, you’ll experience the downside of ‘drive:’ driving people away, driving yourself and others to exhaustion, driving productivity and morale down.   If you overuse them, drive and willpower can wreak havoc – on productivity, relationships and personal well-being.

What about you?

  • How do you know if you’re “over-powering” in your leadership and your life?
  • And how do you find out before it’s too late?
  • What are the signals, both from within yourself and from the external world, that you’re nearing or crossing the line?

Examining these questions in depth now could save you from having to recover later from personal burn-out, damaged relationships, or an all-out career derailment.

Thank You For Breathing

Okay, I’ve taken your gritty sisters to task (“Would it kill you to say thank you?”).  Now it’s your turn, grace-sters. It’s Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.  I love remembering all the things I’m grateful for.  It makes me happy and I find it very motivating to take stock of what’s positive in my life.

I know a lot of women leaders who lead by praise, by freely giving thanks to those around them.  They know the motivational power that helping someone feel worthy and valued can have.  Used judiciously, giving thanks can be an amazing tool for elevating performance and morale.  And it can be overdone.

I’m thinking of the leadership equivalent of a “Proud Parent of a Fairfield Kindergartner” bumper sticker.  As if the mere fact of a child’s attendance at school is cause for celebration.  Some leaders who like to give and get praise can manage like this. Praise for everything.  Praise every day.  They’ll find something – anything – to praise, even in the poorest work product.  It’s what I call the “Thank you for breathing” mode of management.  It’s well-meant. But what’s the actual result…on outcomes?  on relationships?  on morale?

Leaders on the grace side of the spectrum can tend to shy way from the tough stuff: the hard conversations, the unvarnished critiques.  But this has huge risks.  It can breed complacency, erode morale and stifle development.   The longer a problem goes unaddressed, the more it weighs down the team.  Confronting the problem is going to be uncomfortable whenever you do it, so why wait?

Often the kindest act is to address a problem swiftly and sharply. Balanced with your naturally appreciative nature, a well-delivered and direct critique can have a remarkably positive impact.   Between now and the end of the year, consider challenging yourself to confront things head-on, and to do so within a specified time limit.

Portrait of Grit and Grace: Penny Chenery Tweety

silk_optStonesIf you want to see a magnificent integration of gritty toughness and graceful dignity, watch Diane Lane’s portrayal of Penny Chenery Tweety in the movie, “Secretariat.” Horseracing was and is an industry dominated by men. Yet in the 1970’s, Mrs. Tweety achieved tremendous success in a man’s business.  If Lane’s portrayal is at all realistic, Mrs. Tweety inspired respect by addressing difficult issues head on. She took courageous risks and stood unshakable in her principles and intuition even amidst doubt and resistance from nearly everyone in her circle.  That’s grit.  Yet she also engendered devotion through the care and dignity with which she treated everyone around her – from the richest man in America to Secretariat’s groom to, apparently, Secretariat himself.

What about you?

  • What are the values and principles that you hold most dear as a person and as a leader?
  • What does it feel like to stand for those, even in the face of resistance?
  • What do you have to call upon to take that stand?
  • How do you stay rooted in your principles, while still remaining open and flexible?

What can turning leaves teach us about change?

It’s Fall in Washington, DC.  As I revel in the leaves’ changing color, my thoughts turn to the process of change. A few years ago, I learned something amazing about how the leaves actually turn.  The green itself does not change into a different color. Rather, the chlorophyl that creates the green simply falls away, revealing these amazing reds, oranges and yellows that were there all the time. The leaves don’t make the new colors happen.  They just let go of what’s dominated.

There’s a lesson in this for us.  It’s easy to to assume that we have to actively transform ourselves in order to change. There’s something we have to DO, someone new we have to become.  While I think that’s true to some degree, the leaves are an annual reminder that there is also a more receptiveside to change.  Change also happens when we are willing to simply let something dominant – a long-held belief, a fear, a grudge, etc. – recede.

Here’s an example from my own life.  I face a continual battle with effort.  Effort is my “color green,” one of my most dominant characteristics. I tell myself that it’s essential to who I am, that it’s what makes me valuable, worthwhile, special.  So I live my life thinking that 100% of what I do needs 100% effort, 100% of the time. While this can be great, it’s also something of a mess.  I often expend more energy than is necessary or even useful.  I can get wound up in perfectionism and become judgmental of myself and others.  So, yes, on the one hand, I’m known for delivering consistently high quality.  And it’s also been said that I can be something of a control freak and a prima dona.

Sheer exhaustion forced me to let go of some of that effort.  And what I’ve noticed is that when I stop trying so hard, when I simply let some of my dominant effort recede, something different and quite nice emerges.  I become a bit more open, more collaborative, less tense…without trying.  It’s a whole different hue that shows up, with its own surprising beauty and value.

What about you?

  • What changes would you like to see in your life?
  • What has been your predominant strategy for bringing those about, and how has that worked?
  • If you took the other side and tried to get there by dropping your dominant strategy, what might appear in its place?
  • Are you willing to take the risk?  If so, what would be your first step?