23 Jun 2016 19:28 IST

Be habitually successful!

Habits become a source of real leadership power that can positively impact situations you are in

In 2013, my classmates and I celebrated the silver jubilee of our graduation from school. Besides being a happy occasion, for me, it was also an interesting observational laboratory. Here were kids I had grown up with, watched at close quarters and now, I had been given the chance to see them years later. How had life turned out for all of us? Given that I spend a lot of my time today in the field of education, an interesting question popped up: were our class toppers the ones with successful and meaningful lives, and back-benchers the ones who had done poorly? In short, did the achievement in marks then translate into success now?

The conclusion I came to was that marks have little correlation with eventual success. Beliefs and habits are the biggest predictors. The ones with the most positive habits had done well — and I’m defining ‘well’ in this context as success plus meaning.

The ones with the most negative habits were the ones still living at less than their potential. Marks in academics then and the indicators of success now, were only an offshoot of habits, positive or negative.

In the last column , we reflected on how beliefs drive behaviour. And one of the most important parts of behaviour is habits.

As we begin our careers, what are some habits that we can make a part of our leadership kit? Let’s look at a suggested monthly habit, a weekly habit and a daily one.

A monthly habit: Record, review and reflect

A good leadership habit is to record some of the important parts of our lives — the choices we made, the lessons we learned, the times we used our strengths well, the times we let our weaknesses get in the way, the influencers we met, the difficulties we overcame and the fears we allowed to paralyze us. Even though some of us may have prodigious memories, there is no substitute for writing things down.

This becomes a veritable gold-mine for the next step, which is to periodically review and reflect on these notes. While doing this, it is important to remember not to take the ‘rearview mirror’ approach of regretting or asking ‘what if’. The purpose of this exercise is to look ahead — how can you harvest guidance and self-awareness from these notes so you can be better prepared for future choices, changes and challenges?

A weekly habit: One book a week

Read for depth and width. In an increasingly inter-connected world, while reading in depth what interests us is important, it is even more imperative to look for width — philosophy, history, art, medicine, even fiction. As students of business, we run the risk of treating these areas as ‘outside our field’, ignoring any reading or learning from them. This handicaps us.

Famed investor Charlie Munger (the lesser-known half of the Berkshire Hathaway leadership team, with the well-known half being Warren Buffet) often speaks about building a ‘latticework of mental models’, that will help improve our thinking and approach towards problem solving and innovation. This helps in both business and life. It is an approach where you build a way of thinking picked up from different disciplines.

You don’t mark out boundaries between disciplines. You don’t just read books on business and say, “This is how I must think if I’m to be in business”. You could read and learn something from architecture that could influence how you think about designing for a customer; or you could read about an innovation in medicine and think of how it could lend itself to your product strategy; you could read about sports and think of an engagement model that can be used in marketing to a young prospect base.

One of the people I’ve seen doing this superbly and consistently is my former boss, Manish Sabharwal, who is now the chairman of Teamlease. Like many senior-management executives, he has a huge library. But the difference between him and others is that he has actually read every one of those books!

I could hold a conversation with him on literally any topic and he would have something insightful and informative to share. This made him an exceptional networker, who could build strong and lasting relationships with peers from any background. While he often spoke about building businesses that were ‘an inch wide and a mile deep’, in his reading, he went a mile wide and a mile deep.

A daily habit: Silence, stillness and solitude

The habit of being silent and still does not lend itself naturally to discussions on the rough-and-tumble of the business world. But this is an important habit to build and practice daily.

Perhaps you could begin with five minutes and gradually increase it as you get more comfortable. Getting your bodies still takes some practice, but it is even harder to keep your mind stationary.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa compares our mind to a ‘tree filled with monkeys, jumping from one branch to another’. So too our minds jump from one thought to another. Meditation experts recommend repeating a single word or phrase — a mantra — to help keep the mind still. Keeping at this habit has immense benefits, some obvious and immediate, but several long term and less conspicuous.

Just as you pull back a catapult before releasing it, treat this time as a ‘pull back’ before you plunge into your working day. It will help you practice cultivating a ‘calm at the centre of every storm’ disposition, and help you focus on the now rather than fretting about the past or stressing about the future. It will also give you perspective on the bigger picture, so you don’t sweat the small stuff.

Repetition

The important thing about habits is exactly what makes them habits — repetition. They can’t be treated as hobbies, done when convenient or on a whim. Habits must be conviction-driven. Therefore, we must be committed to making them a part of our lives. They become a source of strength and real leadership power so we can positively impact the situations we are placed in, and the people we interact with.

As Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist and film star said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

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