Learning occurs when we replace preferences – familiar and therefore comfortable behaviors we have practiced – with new, more effective behaviors. The process of learning is both painful and somewhat difficult because preferences come easily while new behaviors require deliberate implementation. However, as we repeat new behaviors, we turn them into preferences, and in this way build layers of learning upon which we can constantly improve.
This is the subject of Atomic Habits by James Clear. Though Mr. Clear approaches the topic from the perspective of building better habits, the principles are the same that we use to build our individual leadership practices. This is an easy, quick read with some very interesting ideas about habit formation and change.
There are several important points that will improve our learning process. One of the most important points is that “habits do not restrict freedom. They create it.” (46) We often feel that others force us to adapt our behavior because they just don’t get it. This is not true, and it creates a mental limitation in our learning. When we blame others for the discomfort of learning, we shift responsibility for change from ourselves – the actual, natural source of discomfort – and decrease our sight of what might be. Changing our behavior opens new doors for us and others. It creates possibilities for the members of the group, individually and as a whole, that did not previously exist. Leadership creates excellence, and the discomfort of learning is a natural, internal aspect that we must overcome as we create that positive outcome in the world. If leadership was easy, everyone would do it; our desire to lead (and the vision factor of our belief) is a source of strength.
Mr. Clear talks about the “Plateau of Latent Potential”, which describes the delay between self-improvement and visible results. (20-3) This delay creates frustration, because we expect to see the results of our self-work, but we do not. This is a striking reality of leadership, where any intervention we make (in our own behavior, or in relationships or vision) takes time to percolate through the system. Learning to lead is difficult, in part because of this specific challenge. In fact, it often occurs that we fail to notice change at all, either because it occurs slowly and below a degree of perception, or because we fail to notice the signs. When we identify clear markers for our intervention, then we can often seek out this change. Deliberate planning lessens the plateau and reinforces our learning process.
Finally, the discussion of behavior and identity is a critical one, not only from the perspective of individual behavior, but also from the perspective of group behavior. Mr. Clear argues that the behaviors we perform as habits become the way we see ourselves: they define our identities. (30-41) This is an important argument for organizations, where relationships become organizational culture. The way that members treat each other in the performance of work becomes the way that the group sees each other. Relationships influence vision. This isn’t controversial; we know that vision and relationships must align. But it is an important reminder that, when actual relationships conflict with your attempts to create a single, shared vision, relationships will win. We must pay attention to both functions, or else we will fail to lead.
Atomic Habits is an insightful book on self-development, and it offers many sound concepts to our growth as leaders. The framework is useful, the writing is clear, and the topic is highly relevant. Atomic Habits is worth your time.
Welcome to THE LIST!
Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. James Clear. Avery, 2018.