11 Jan 2018 20:05 IST

Catapult time: Taking on 2018

Before you start making resolutions for the year, take some time to reflect and retreat

As we begin the New Year, there is often a restlessness to get going, to move on to new projects and initiatives, or to pursue a new dream. But, counter-intuitively, it is best to begin with a pull-back, a pausing, and a time for reflection. Just as a catapult is first pulled back before the stone is launched towards its target, we need to ‘retreat’ and ask ourselves what should fill the year ahead. As with a catapult, the better we are able to pull back, the more power and energy we will have to drive us forward.

Pope Francis often uses his Christmas addresses to the Curia (the Vatican’s office of leaders and administrators) to push the pause button and bring up points for reflection. These addresses are often met with only polite applause because he makes hard-hitting points and pushes forward uncomfortable truths which makes his audience squirm nervously, as they recognise things they need to change. In his Christmas message in 2016, he listed 15 sicknesses that the Curia must avoid. Let us take the first three for our own reflection and the choices for our leadership this coming year.

The sickness of feeling oneself “immortal” or “immune” or, in fact, indispensable.

2017 was filled with news of lay-offs; of how automation has claimed jobs. A difficult time, but also a time filled with the opportunity to commit ourselves to non-stop learning. As Arnold Toynbee put it, “Nothing fails like success.”

Many times, our biggest successes sow the seeds for failure, because we grow over-confident, define ourselves too rigidly and stop growing. We often pride ourselves on an area of knowledge or expertise, but change is relentless. Knowledge can become outdated and skills redundant. This requires a habit of reflecting, some self-criticism and then some creative destruction.

As Pope Francis put it “A Curia that does not criticise itself, which does not update itself, which does not seek to improve itself, is a sick body. An ordinary visit to cemeteries would help us to see the names of so many persons, some of whom thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable!”

Identity issues

There is also the risk of identifying ourselves too closely with our roles. Leaders who have often performed a specific role for a long time almost become that role. When they look in the mirror, they see themselves as CEO of this or Executive VP of that, Chief this or Chief that. Then, suddenly, change hits and their role either disappears or changes beyond recognition. They are then left in a vacuum and with a massive loss of self-confidence. One of the challenges I used to pose to our teams when we brainstormed on new initiatives was, “stop defining ourselves by what we do and define ourselves by what we have”. I think this is also a good personal challenge for us as leaders.

We should not define ourselves by our roles but should look at our skills, our strengths, our experience and what we can contribute. This helps us to avoid the sickness of indispensability. In fact, this motivates us to change the game. From protecting and preserving our indispensability, we remind ourselves that the goal for leaders should be to become dispensable in one area so they can move on to leading and make a difference in the next.

Steve Jobs sums it up nicely: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”

The sickness of “Martha-ism”, of excessive busyness.

Most of us leaders struggle with this. There is so much to do. We are constantly busy. But the questions we should be asking are ‘What am I busy with? What should I be busy with? In the context of the big picture of my life, is this the right stuff to be busy with?’

We spend time on the work treadmill; running very fast but staying in the same place. We sweat the small stuff. We’re so busy rowing the boat fast, that we forget to check if the rudder is turned in the right direction. The organisation then pays the price, as leaders are so busy doing things of little consequence, that they have not spent time thinking about the business, about what needs to change, about what shouldn’t, what the market is saying and how the organisation should respond.

As Michael Gerber put it, “there’s a big difference between being busy working in your business and being busy working on your business.”

Perhaps one of the most effective tools to deal with this sickness is to ask ourselves the Steve Jobs question. “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?”

The sickness of mental and spiritual petrification.

This is when we let our hearts, minds, and spirits get ossified. We no longer listen as we should, are no longer as sensitive to what is going on around us as we should be, and are no longer moved, inspired or disturbed. One reason is because we start to take things for granted. The first customer complaint has us as eager problem-solvers but by the hundredth, it becomes just another task to complete. There’s no more a person at the other end, just a service request number. A colleague shares a problem at work, and we’re just waiting for her to finish, so we can get on with our e-mails.

Our work becomes an endless array of meetings, conference calls, discussions, more meetings, more conference calls, more discussions. That’s when the mental and spiritual petrification starts to set in. To prevent this, an important question to keep throwing at ourselves is “What do I care about that I’m willing to go outside of my comfort zone to work at, to contribute to?”, “Do I care enough?”

Being present

If we’re not careful, we then gradually stop living in the present. We’re either replaying the last thing that happened, or planning for the next one. With so many gadgets calling out for our time, we risk moving from e-mail message to WhatsApp message to voice memo — all this without truly being present.

Satya Nadella talks about this presence when he says: “When I’m with my family, doing something — say, even this weekend, tomorrow when I’m there with my daughter, I’m present. What does that presence mean? A lot of us have the residual effect of the last e-mail, the last thing. You’ve got to get very, very good, I think, in modern life, to not have that residual effect spoil your presence.”

If we’d like to stay leadership-fit this coming year, we need to stay off these sicknesses. Our catapult time will serve the purpose of helping us prepare to stay fit. And to the oft-heard objection “I don’t have the time” — it’s important enough; we need to make the time.