How do you eat an elephant?

Anyone who has ever trained for a marathon, will tell you that the hard work is not running the race. It’s the small, incremental steps you must take to get there. It’s the gradual but significant progress you make in your training – running that bit further each week. Bit by bit, the distances get longer, and somehow, you find yourself crossing a finish line, achieving what you once thought was impossible.
 
That’s how change happens and how goals are achieved.  Incrementally. Daily.
 
From little things, big things grow
 
So, how does this apply to leadership?

In her research on the key actions leaders can take to improve their team’s motivation and performance, Teresa Amabile, author and Professor at Harvard Business School, noted that: ‘Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.’
 
Amabile calls this The Progress Principle. And it’s really quite simple – in actively noting down and tracking small achievements each day, we improve our sense of competence.  When we add reflecting on challenges and lessons learned to our small wins, we make big steps towards larger success. 
 
As leaders, we can help our teams by celebrating these small steps towards larger goals, and ensure that roles and projects are designed with clear objectives that the individual can break down into small but meaningful progressions.
 
The very things that hold you down, could lift you up
 
We can also focus on small, incremental changes in our leadership. Sometimes, it’s the little things we avoid, or think we are not good at, that can make the biggest difference in our own development.
 
When I work with clients, we often look at what they are ‘skilfully avoiding’.  The seemingly small changes that might just transform the way they lead. How often, and how sincerely, do you really thank your team, your peers, your manager? How well do you celebrate or acknowledge daily progress? How carefully and with what level of interest do you listen when people speak? How well do you react to bad news at work? How much do you really invest in caring about your team and their development?
 
Little and often beats big and never
 
Like any other process or habit, your leadership, and the performance of your team, can take huge leaps forward with simple, small, daily improvements. As Simon Sinek says: ‘Leadership is a daily practice.’
 
Shawn Achor outlined in his TED talk The Happy Secret to Better Work that we each have the power to train our brain in just a couple of minutes a day (over a 21-day period) to be more positive and therefore more productive.
 
Our brain, when positive, is significantly more effective than when we feel negative, neutral or – and this one is important to note – stressed.  Our creativity increases, our intelligence increases and every single business outcome improves. Achor found that when we are positive, our brains are 30% more productive.
 
If you want to try it for yourself, Achor’s research recommends these five small daily steps:

  1. Writing down three new things that you are grateful for – this teaches our brain to start scanning for the positive, not the negative, which creates a virtuous cycle.
  2. Journaling – writing down one positive experience you have had over the past 24 hours allows you to re-live it.
  3. Exercise – teaches us that our behaviour matters.
  4. Meditation – helps us learn to focus.
  5. Sending one positive email thanking someone every morning when you open your emails for the day.

What’s one small change you could do today, and consistently for the rest of the week that might add up to a significant change in your leadership?

The answer, by the way, to the question ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ is ‘One bite at a time’.  Which elephant are you going to nibble at this week?

I'd love to hear your perspective on the small changes that have led to big gains – please comment below. Never miss a post, plus get exclusive content, when you sign up to Not Just Another Newsletter

Jules SmithComment