You’re excited. You’re about to leave on your first real away-from-home vacation since 2019, before the pandemic. Tickets in hand and visions of a white sandy beach, aquamarine water, and exotic cocktails dancing in your head, you board the airplane and take your seat.
Moments later, the captain’s voice confidently comes over the intercom. “Welcome aboard!” he says. “I’ve been flying jets for twenty-three years and have accumulated more than 30,000 flight hours over the course of my career. Today, I’ve decided to stop using the checklists we normally use before and during your flight. I know this stuff cold, so trust me, we’ll all be just fine. Enjoy the flight!”
If I was on that flight, I’d be off the plane before you could say “Mai Tai”––even at the expense of my first vacation in well over a year! Wouldn’t you?
As Dr. Atul Gawande articulately explains in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, we all need checklists to help us reliably attend to the myriad details required by our roles and professions––even a 30,000-flight-hour commercial pilot! We know this intuitively.
The same is true for a leader like you with regard to the effectiveness of your decisions, actions, and overall leadership.
Have you ever thought about why your closet gets messier with the passing of time? I’ll spare you the physics lecture, but it’s due to entropy, which is an increase in randomness and disorder when energy isn’t expended to maintain order.
You expend significant energy to clean it out each spring, then relax over the year as mess and disorder accumulate. That is, until sometime the following spring when you put energy back into the system to create order once again. It’s a never-ending cycle.
At this point, you may be wondering, “What does my closet have to do with leadership?”
Leadership becomes messier (less disciplined) over time in the absence of focused energy to maintain order. And, as with your closet, you can overcome entropy’s unrelenting progression with some spring cleaning. With that in mind, I’ve created a checklist to bolster your leadership by focusing on eight factors that activate leadership success.
Adapted from my first book, Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done, this checklist delves into eight activators to help you refresh, refocus and/or reframe your Purpose, Fears, Assumptions, Habits, Relationships, Metrics, Past Events, and Enjoying Your Journey. I’ve also included links to free downloadable tools to help you fully engage with each Activator.
The term purpose may sound touchy-feely to some, but there’s no need to gather crystals or burn incense for this first segment of the checklist. In fact, there’s nothing even slightly fluffy about tapping into a sense of purpose to achieve something important. Hundreds of research studies tell us that big-picture objectives––like impact, one’s legacy, and an overarching purpose––are catalysts for inspiration and success-generating actions. With clarity of purpose, you can more easily and accurately determine whether taking a particular route serves you and your goals, and then act accordingly—while bringing others with you. (For additional compelling arguments on the value of a strong purpose, read Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why.)
Using purpose as a guiding principle makes day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and moment-to-moment choices easier and better. This Know Your WHY Tool will help you clarify the purpose behind your aspirations.
Fear affects us all––and likely more than you think. Studies show that fear frequently hijacks our decision-making processes, leading us to make choices based solely on the potential of negative events, no matter how unlikely. Those decisions are typically safe bets—involving less creativity, less risk, and less change—to make us feel physically and/or psychologically safe and more secure. But you shouldn’t be comfortable leading a growing business. High performing growth firms encourage active experimentation and creativity—and by the same token, the risk of failure. To overcome your fears and make the decisions necessary to scale, you must first understand exactly what you’re afraid of, as well as the implications of your fears—and there are many.
Most fears that impact business leaders arise in three categories: ego, scarcity, or failure. My research-based Fear Reduction Tool will help you overcome the fears that emerge from these checklist questions and then make the commitments necessary to succeed.
We are Emotional beings. Unfortunately, our emotions don’t reliably support our goals; rather, they tend to feed our egos, fears, and detrimental habits. One way to override emotions and interrupt unproductive habits is to force yourself to be as rational as possible.
For example, many CEOs are in the habit of being seduced by their own busyness. Rather than working on big-picture aspects of their business, like assessing trends or thinking strategically, their assumptions regarding the value of their time cause them to choose to fix things right in front of them that seem to be broken. To avoid these counterproductive temptations, they should slow down and get rational by thinking through the comparative value of different actions available to them to determine which has more long-term payoff.
The following questions will help you challenge unseen assumptions, get rational and slow down.
Use the Challenge Your Assumptions Tool to isolate a particular problem and determine how to move past it, breaking down the hidden assumptions that reinforce your current thinking.
All humans are creatures of habit. Our habits have helped us conserve energy and survive since our emergence as a species. As with many positive attributes, however, there are corresponding liabilities: some of our habits don’t serve us, harm our relationships, and even derail our aspirations. To address the liabilities, it’s important to periodically identify your most unproductive habits—the ones preventing you from reaching your personal and professional goals—and itemize the rewards that keep them in place (there are always rewards associated with habits, even “bad” habits!), as well as the consequences of maintaining them. With this clarity, you can then more readily replace them with other behaviors, which is the only way to permanently eradicate unproductive habits.
My Change Your Habits Tool will help you identify the behaviors or patterns of thought that aren’t serving you, consider their rewards and consequences, and take steps to replace them with more productive behaviors / thinking.
When I began looking for my first house, my Grandpa Ben gave me some advice: “No matter what you do,” he said, “don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood because there’s only one way the other houses can affect your property value over time.”
His wisdom made perfect sense to me, so I’ve followed it ever since. It wasn’t until years later that I realized Grandpa Ben’s advice applied to more than real estate transactions; it’s also a key insight for relationships. If you have more experience, clients, and resources than your peers, YOU may have become the most expensive house in your professional neighborhood––and there’s only one way those around you can affect your value (and rate of growth).
To continually improve, you must surround yourself with people who are better than you, who make you a little uncomfortable and who challenge you. These are the professional “neighbors” who can truly accelerate your growth!
When you surround yourself with individuals who have already reached the next level (or beyond)—who have broken past the place where you are, they’ll help you stretch and challenge you to improve, increasing your value over time. This New Neighborhood Tool will help you identify and find them.
To be successful in any worthy endeavor, you must be willing to make trade-offs today for tomorrow’s rewards. But it’s hard to focus on the future when your hair is on fire, which is often the scenario for leaders running high-growth firms. Forcing more future focus helps, and one way to do that is to measure more––tracking your progress on the path toward a larger objective. This practice helps you stay in the present while also thinking more long-term.
To ensure that your long-term aspirations receive the attention, energy, and investment they deserve, you must build a habit to measure more and increase your future focus. Completing this Accountability Tool and referring to it daily will enable you and your team to do just that.
According to psychologists, our perceptions about the past tend to skew either toward the positive––meaning we tend to remember the past fondly, or toward the negative—making us more likely to retain memories with a negative charge. While a leader with past-positive orientation will likely recall events to bolster their confidence as they approach a challenge, those with a past-negative orientation might face a problem or even an opportunity with fear, dread, or total avoidance, remembering a similar past experience that didn’t end well. Fortunately, you can reframe your past, shed your mental baggage, and shift your perception to see the positives in an experience you previously considered to be negative.
This Reframe Your Past Tool will help you reframe your perspective and make past experiences more effectively support your future.
Researchers including Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, have repeatedly demonstrated that being in the present moment is a valuable trait. Life is full of unexpected situations. If you can be OK with that reality, you can learn to capitalize on it, have more fun, and more fully enjoy the journey along the way.
We often spend our emotional and physical energy focused on the past (what’s already happened) or on the future (what we want to or think will happen) at the expense of the present—the moment that’s right here, right now. This Schedule the Present Tool will help you engage in more present moment-focused activities to help you better enjoy the journey.
John C. Maxwell said, “Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.” But leaders, just like airline pilots need checklists to consistently attend to the critical elements of their roles. Today’s spring cleaning checklist is a necessary tool to refresh, refocus and reenergize your leadership.
After completing the checklist questions, pick the one or two Activators you most want to develop. For additional guidance on where to focus, take the Activators Self-Assessment here and the Hidden Growth Killers Self-Assessment here (like the tools, both are available for free). When you know what you’re committing to—and perhaps also how you plan to achieve it—consider working with an accountability partner, a friend, colleague, or coach who can help you meet your goals and combat the entropy that will inevitably sneak into your endeavors.
Just like the inevitable mess in your closet, your leadership becomes less disciplined over time in the absence of focused energy to maintain order. But applying a little energy—and the Activators—will help you and your team stay on track in all seasons.
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