My grandfather used to say that the same gunpowder that could propel a 30-30 slug through a small tree couldn’t shoot a shotgun full of marshmallows through a screen door. Leadership is about focused power, not scattered energy.
Leaders must systematically develop powers of concentration and physical stamina. The nature of our cultures, our lazy selfishness, and the entropy of the universe (2nd law of thermodynamics) works against us.
Our first task is to avoid leadership distractions that keep us from our best work.
Every leadership venture risks being stalled when it’s time to produce something, get it started, keep it going, winnow it down to usable, ship it – at any stage of a project or initiative or growing people, we can get distracted and unfocused. Steven Pressfield calls this “battling the resistance.” Seth Godin refers to it as fighting against your Lizard Brain that’s afraid of just about everything real and imagined.
I hope these words from Jennifer Egan will help you. She’s talking about writing, but I think the same spirit applies to all kinds of productive work:
[Be] willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen… When I was writing “The Keep,” my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”
The next leadership development task is to develop our powers of concentration. No one can do this for you. You must develop your ability in advance, so that it’s available to you when you need it most.
I read something recently about the famous mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure to sit at his desk every day and concentrate. This indispensable daily training gave him the physical and mental stamina that a professional writer needs, and over time strengthened his willpower.
Here are three practical suggestions you can use:
First, intentionally choose work that requires concentration over periods of time. Example: Include real books in your study plan. There are great TED talks, blog posts (including this one!), and magazine articles, but they don’t develop your ability to concentrate the way studying a book does. Also, periodically study unfamiliar topics.
Second, use a timer to help you develop your focus power. Select a task or activity, set a time, and do nothing else for that time. An alternative approach is to use a cup of tea or coffee – keep the focus going while you take slow sips.
Third, push your body a little harder in a physical activity, to develop confidence that you can do more than you thought possible. Go further on your run or swim. Add weight or reps. Intentionally take a 5 min cold shower. Fast from food for a day. Reach the point where your inner committee of whiners begins complaining loudly, and keep going. You will find your mental discipline is strengthened.
Celebrate as you develop more concentration and stamina, and be grateful that you are better prepared for your great leadership work to come.