The “Active” Leader: Harnessing Willpower to Move from Ideas to Action

With so much going on in our lives how do we get anything done, and prioritise what needs to be accomplished.  In this article I look at the key components that help ensure an idea moves from just that, an idea into action.  These are the exact same techniques that I used to help me get my lovely ponies Bracken and Thistle under saddle this summer.

“Daily routines, superficial behaviours, poorly prioritized or unfocused tasks leech managers’ capacities—making unproductive busyness perhaps the most critical behavioural problem” in business today, contend Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal in their book A Bias for Action.

For so many of us—whether CEOs for major corporations, small business owners or solo-entrepreneurs—there is a fundamental disconnection between knowing what should be done and actually doing it. Calling this disconnection the “knowing-doing gap,” Stanford University researchers Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton pose the question: “Why does knowledge of what needs to be done frequently fail to result in action or behaviour consistent with that knowledge?”

Is there anyone in business today who hasn’t wondered the same thing?

The answer, argue Bruch and Ghoshal, is both simple and profound. They sum it up with the term “willpower.” The problem they say is not that managers’ time is sliced, but that their intention or “volition” is sliced as well. 

Getting things done requires two critical components: energy and focus. And both are at risk in the modern workplace. Building a bias for action in yourself and your organization requires developing and reinforcing the skills to become a “purposeful” or “volitional” manager. These are people who can consistently achieve their objectives by making an unconditional commitment to their goals and then leveraging the power of that intention to overcome the obstacles in their way, whether their own doubts or the bureaucracies within their organizations.

“Purposeful action-taking depends on engaging the power of the will,” according to Burch and Ghoshal. “Not only does willpower galvanize your mental and emotional energy, it also enables you to make your intention happen against the most powerful odds: distractions, temptations to move in a different direction, self-doubt, and negativity. Willpower is the force that strengthens your energy and sharpens your focus throughout the action-taking process.”

Burch and Ghoshal identify four key steps that form the basis of successfully taking action:

Form your intention. To work, your goal must appeal to you emotionally and be something you can define concretely enough so you can clearly visualize its success.

Commit unconditionally to your intention. This is the key step, which the authors liken to “crossing the Rubicon,” Caesar’s irreversible decision that led to his conquest of Rome.

Protect your intention. Once you have made your commitment, you have to protect it from forces both within yourself and your organization.

Disengage from your intention. Unlike Caesar, your Rubicons aren’t life-and-death affairs. You have to define your “stopping rules,” the point of success—or failure—from which you walk away and take up the next challenge.

From the commitment comes both the emotional energy and the focus that are critical to your success. In short, the process of getting things done in business is pretty much the same as in any other aspect of life: The only things that get done are those that you genuinely believe in, and believe will get done.

So just think about your day and how you can stay focused and set up for success.  I’ve stopped taking calls when I’m  focusing on a specific task and it is incredible how much more I get done.  It tests me as just whilst writing this article a client called me.  At first I wanted to take the call but then realised how my lack of focus in that moment would not be serving anyone.  So I “missed” the call and will call them back once I’m finished.

When you are with your horse, how can you stay focused on the in hand and not get distracted by all the other activities happening on the yard?  I’d love to hear how you cope.


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