How do you prepare yourself for a new activity? I didn’t put too much thought into this until I was at a conference a few years ago. I can’t remember the topic but I distinctly recall standing at a urinal when a guy walked into the bathroom and shouted at the mirror, “You are Lizard King! You can do anything!” He then left as quickly as he had appeared.
Ten minutes later I was shocked as the “Lizard King” was introduced as the keynote speaker. After the presentation, I asked him about his display. He wasn’t embarrassed, although he claimed that he didn’t see anyone in the bathroom. The keynote stated that it’s simply his pre-speech ritual. “It must psych you up?” I asked. “It use to,” he responded, “now it’s just something I do to center myself before I stand in front of a crowd.”
Similarly, in a recent interview, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton discussed his pre-show rituals. It begins with the hours of meticulous research Lipton conducts on the person being interviewed. This can take months and Lipton prefers to do it by himself. He then transcribes his notes onto his trademark blue index cards and marks them up with post-it tabs and highlighters before they are neatly stacked in a 10-inch pile on his desk while taping the show.
My nightmare, somebody steals my cards.—James Lipton
Rituals like Lipton and the Lizard King are more than simply superstition or habit; they have been shown to have a positive affect on performance. In a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Alison Woods Brooks found that many top-level performers use rituals to help them prepare. These rituals significantly reduce anxiety and produce a higher quality work product. By mitigating the distracting, disruptive indicators associated with anxiety through pre-performance routines, Brooks concluded, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.”
The lesson here is that we need a consistent ritual that precedes our stress-inducing events. You can go big (like screaming into a public bathroom mirror) or more subtle. Drink a glass of room temperature water. Read a poem or inspirational quote. Click your heals three times. Whatever you can do to center yourself and jumpstart that inner “on” switch. I’m sure Lipton would even be okay if you used index cards, although maybe you can find a color other than blue.
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of my favorite holiday traditions. As much as I’d like to say that I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, in truth I read it once, really liked it, and have since made a ritual of watching Scrooged with Bill Murray. With every viewing of this movie plus the multitude of other renditions, I wonder why calling someone a “Scrooge” is such a bad thing.
As leaders, we should strive to be Scrooges. If this sounds wrong that’s because you are focusing on the pre-Christmas Ebenezer. That guy is a selfish, egotistical miser who says things like, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be…buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” But this is not the message of A Christmas Carol, it is simply the beginning.
A Christmas Carol is the story of self-improvement. It’s about learning from your past, having foresight into your future, and making the changes necessary in the present. This is not a feel-good self-affirmation; it’s a motivator to introspectively pick apart our flaws and work towards becoming a better person.
We can’t be forced to change our ways. There is no Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come to serve as a catalyst for evolving. Our fate will not be on display to pressure us into an epiphany. All we have is inner drive. Unfortunately, the determination to change is not enough; our bad habits are too embedded into our psyche. Therefore, according to Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model, we need to follow these five steps to make positive behavioral changes that stick.
- Precontemplation. In this first stage, we are Scrooge on December 23rd–making a change has been the farthest thing from our mind. The signs have been all around us, but we’ve fought or just ignored them.
- Contemplation. In this stage we’ve begun to think about the need to change a behavior. The impetus is different for everyone. For some it takes a particular event to wake us up, like Scrooge’s surprise visit from his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. For others it involves years of deliberation.
- Determination. Now we begin to mentally prepare for action. While Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning with a new outlook on life, we may download a new calendar app or buy running shoes. This stage involves mapping out our plan of attack and scheduling a start date. This culmination of willpower is the resolve to change and the fuel needed to attain your goals.
- Action. Time to activate your plan. Give Bob Cratchit a raise. Get medical assistance for Tiny Tim. Start moving!
- Maintenance. Day 1 of a new behavior is easy; true change takes persistence. Scrooge wasn’t just a more virtuous person on December 25th. As the book states, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more… He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man…” Maintenance involves continuing to chase your goal every day, with every decision, and every deed. It requires that we uphold a high life-condition where our changed belief continues to manifest as action. Create short milestones so you can appreciate the sense of accomplishment and reward yourself along the way.
Want to be a better leader? Be a Scrooge—remain in a constant state of self-improvement. Want to be a better leader? Be a Jacob Marley—guide others towards elevating their skills and performance. And if you really want to be a better leader, be a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come—foster a culture where people can learn from their mistakes, understand the repercussions, and make changes before its too late. Or say, “Ba-Hum-Bug” and suffer the consequences.
Welcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a round of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just one round? Because it’s the weekend!
When discussing ways to be a better leader, we cannot undervalue the emphasis placed on hard work. Becoming “the leader” often involves competing with other capable peers who want the role just as badly as you. So the question becomes, who is willing to put in more effort to get it.
On the podcast Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin, famed actor and screenwriter Mickey Rourke was discussing his early days in acting. Rourke had recently retired from boxing and was finding his way in his new career.
I use to see Al Pacino at the [Actor’s] Studio and Chris Walkin and Harvey Keitel, guys I really admired, [so] I said to my acting coach, ‘Can I ever be as good as Al Pacino?’ And she said, ‘You have to work harder than the rest.’ And I could understood that in relation to boxing.
You don’t win the fight on the night of the fight; you win the fight the 10-12 weeks that you do your road work… So with the acting, I would go to the Studio late at night, I had a key. What I would do, there’d be a bum on the street, and I would pay him $5 to read lines with me… and I was there every f—king night and I would work and I would work harder and harder.
Rourke is naturally talented. Like you, he was born with a gift. But a lot of other people are, too. Determination and some long hours are all that will separate you from the competition. Think about that the next time you take an extra long lunch or start binging your next show or decide to do a little extra shopping online at the office. No one is stopping you, but while you’re relaxing, someone else is getting the edge on you. As Rourke said, you win the fight in the time leading up the match; if you wait until it begins, it’s too late.