As the head of an organization that unlocks human potential through leadership development, here’s a short summary of what I’ve learned:
People and companies want to change because they know they must. And they usually fail, not for lack of effort, but because they don’t know how to do it. For these shortcomings there’s an obvious culprit –their brains.
To paraphrase an insight often credited to Darwin, it’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.
Yet studies have shown repeatedly that as much as 50- 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail. According to human performance expert Tony Schwartz, the average person makes the same New Year’s resolution 10 separate times and never fulfills it.
The business, social and personal costs of these failures are enormous, but we still remain stuck in our old loops.
I found myself stuck, too, in my early 20s. Fresh out of the U.S. Naval Academy and having qualified as a Navy pilot, I was working in my first Naval Aviation Squadron. I was very busy flying and leading a team, so I couldn’t exactly do whatever I wanted. But I finally had the freedom, after four years of following a rigid schedule, to make decisions about what I would eat and when, or if, I would exercise.
This turned out to be dangerous.
As a busy newlywed, I slipped unwittingly into a daily routine. Come home from work, eat two or three portions of my wife’s delicious dinners, then sit down on the couch and study my aircraft and weapon systems.
One year and twenty-five pounds later, I began to understand why I wasn’t feeling like myself anymore.
Usually pretty energetic, I felt sluggish most of the day. Once an accomplished athlete, I was hardly ever going to the gym. And I was only 23!
How did this happen?
We know now, from authors like Charles Duhigg and our own research at the Center for Creative Leadership into neuroscience and leadership, that much of what we do every day is strongly rooted in habit. Our brains are hardwired to manage the complexities of daily living by creating as many habits as possible. Habits really don’t require thinking, and the less we have to think and decide the more energy the brain conserves to deal with events that are out of the ordinary. And that’s why there’s a good chance you’ve already given up on that New Year’s resolution you made a month ago.
Maybe, because I was new to working long hours in an aviation squadron and also learning to master all the intricacies of flying a multi-million dollar aircraft, my brain needed all the available energy it could find. So my habits of overeating and just studying grew more and more ingrained.
When my father finally called me “a couch potato,” I knew the time had come to change. There weren’t a lot of fancy theories for how to do this in the late 1960s, but my wife and I put our heads together and figured out a few key steps.
First, I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t out of shape because of a bad metabolism or genetics or medical problems. Self pity is an impediment to living a healthy and productive life. I’d put myself in this fix through my own attitudes and behavior. As my organization explains in our program for managing change, the process starts with closely examining our deepest beliefs and mindsets. I believed, as someone who was young, healthy and athletic, that I could overeat and take it easy and still feel my best. Having enjoyed very little freedom at the Naval Academy, I also believed I should be able to do what I want. Unhealthy behaviors followed.
Next, I defined a concrete goal: lose the 25 pounds I’d gained since graduation and get back in great shape. As people, we’re strongly motivated by rewards for hitting our goals, and my reward would be looking and feeling better and also being a better leader and example to others.
As Duhigg’s The Power of Habit says, we’re more likely to change when we enlist others for support and guidance. My wife – whom I should make clear had not gained 25 pounds, or actually anything at all! – agreed to help however she could. That included cooking smaller meals and offering encouragement every step of the way.
Finally, I needed to commit to new behaviors that would, over time, form healthier habits that would replace the old, negative ones. It wasn’t easy to put together five-on-five basketball games, so I started running by myself three days a week after work. Then, during dinner, I’d limit myself to one portion and focus on eating it slowly. I won’t tell you this was fun. At first, it was not something I enjoyed, coming home exhausted from a run and then sitting down to a much smaller plate of food.
But other people had much bigger problems, and I knew I had to make this change. So with support from my wife, I stuck to the plan. People began to notice the change in my appearance. I started to enjoy running, and built up to six days a week of it. After six months, the weight was gone. More than 40 years later, it hasn’t come back, and I’m still running four miles almost every day.
The experience also greatly expanded my understanding of leadership, recommitting me to studying and practicing it. I was exposed to the elements that drive change at the individual and, by extension, the organizational level and saw in a deeply personal way how challenging and potentially rewarding the process is.
I don’t congratulate myself too much, though, because Duhigg points out that bad habits are never fully eradicated; they are only replaced. So the possibility of slipping into unproductive routines always remains. Recently, for example, I’ve had to ban myself from eating after 7 p.m. because it was affecting my sleep. I also had to take several steps to break an addiction to checking email.
We’re never too young or too old to fall into bad habits. It’s also never too late to change them.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a Linkedin Influencer. Click to view all his columns and sign up to receive future posts.