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Leveraging Practices

| January 16, 2018

by Brian McDonald

… to Enhance Your Leadership

Brian McDonald is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading.  He is the president of MOR Associates an organization he founded in 1983 based on the belief that many organizations do not maximize the contribution most people want to make at work.  More recently, he has led the development of the MOR family of leadership programs.
Over the last several years MOR Associates’ leadership programs have increasingly emphasized the adoption of practices as the process for developing sustainable changes in behavior.
What’s a practice?  A practice is a bridge to help individuals travel from having aspirations to becoming better to actually developing the new skills and behaviors to enable her or him to be more effective.  Practices are the means to the new level of competency we foresee for ourselves:

  • Where would you benefit by increasing your effectiveness? What skill or attribute do you need to add to your repertoire?
  •  What practice could you use to build this neural pathway to establish the desired behavior?

A practice is a specific, conscious, action that helps an individual change their way of achieving a goal.  Like in arenas other than leadership – for example, sports, music, dance, science, design, computer programming, etc. – consistent practice builds competence and confidence.  Practices enable you to become conscious of your behaviors and choose a new action.  Through this process, you change, grow and become your next self on life’s journey. 
Why are practices important?   Learning means nothing if it’s not applied.  As MOR Associates professes, “The proof you have learned something is in your ability to do something at an increased level of capability.”  
Just as learning requires you to step out of your comfort zone, so too will the application of that learning.  In the “high-wire act” called leadership, practices serve as scaffolding.  They are bite-sized tactics that make the application of a bigger change more attainable.
Learning depends upon a characteristic of the brain known as neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change or adapt after experiences.  Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist who has combined 15 years as a practicing adult and child neurologist with her teacher education training and years of classroom experience, noted in an interview:  “Memory is held not in individual neurons, but rather in multiple neurons in communication with one another.  Neurons that regularly communicate with each other to represent knowledge and memories are referred to as a neural network.  However, one of the most important things … is that the brain and its connections are ‘plastic;’ that it has the ability to change.”  [The short animation at  Neuroplasticity  provides a good illustration of this concept.]
The habits and patterns we have accumulated over a lifetime often keep us anchored in place and hinder our development.  However, the neuroplastic nature of the brain enables it to reshape and reorganize these pathways in response to our use of them.   Willis and other researchers have demonstrated that “after repeated practice, the connections [between neurons] grow stronger, that is, repeated stimulation makes each neuron more likely to trigger the next connected neuron.” 
MOR’s leadership programs are now leveraging the adoption of practices by expecting every program participant to begin by adopting two practices following their first workshop.  Specifically, each workshop participant is asked to adopt a weekly planning practice.  This practice is a “keystone practice” meaning that it is a practice that will impact favorably a number of other behaviors.
The weekly planning practice calls for participants to spend 30-60 minutes each Friday afternoon or Monday morning identifying their top three to five priorities for the next two weeks.  As part of this work, the individual is expected to identify those actions they need to take (or delegate) to move these priorities forward. The individual will also need to turn to their calendars and schedule time to work on each of these priorities.  This is also a good time to look ahead to identify meetings already on the calendar that can be delegated or which they need not attend, or meetings for which they need to prepare.  
Weekly planning is a keystone habit that can lead you to become more focused, have better prioritization, be more effective in time management, and have a more productive week.
Each of MOR’s current program participants is also expected to select a second practice that will serve as a small experiment in consistently applying a daily practice for 28 days.  (Many believe that it takes about 28 days for a new activity to become a habit.)  Options for this second practice include Presence, Delegation, and Building Relationships which represent areas often needing additional work:

  1. Presence is what you generate when you show up.  Presence is a combination of your physical characteristics, the energy you generate, the attitude you demonstrate, and the way in which you conduct yourself.
  2. Delegation is also a “keystone habit,” particularly when the participant couples this practice with coaching and begins developing greater capacity in their workgroup.
  3. Building Relationships is also an important skill to develop. Relationships are currency in higher education.  Making the most of the daily interactions to connect and work with individuals helps make relationship building a habit.  This allows you to extend your network as a simple matter of course.

Leveraging what we are learning from neuroscience has strengthened this cornerstone of MOR’s emphasis on creating sustainable improvements in a participant’s effectiveness well beyond the program.   
In their 2015 book entitled, Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage, by Kitty Chisholm, Paul Brown, and Tara Swart they outline, “four steps for creating behavior change:

  • Raising awareness – all personal development work requires self-reflection.
  • Focused attention – being present, focusing on what is important.
  • Deliberate practice – the saying goes ‘practice makes permanent in the brain’ or ‘act it until you are it,’ forging new, stronger pathways in your brain.  Plasticity means you can create new links between neurons, new pathways, which with each practice grow stronger.  Also, each time you practice your new behavior or attitude, you are NOT using the old one, which means that those links weaken.  
  • Relationship – it is easier if something or someone else is supporting you and holding you accountable.”

Individuals who participated in the leaders programs in past years are encouraged to use these simple steps to continue to build the skills and attributes you want to adopt into habits in your continuing leadership journey:

  • Where would you benefit by increasing your effectiveness?
  • What skill or attribute do you need to add to your repertoire?
  • What practice could you use to build this neural pathway to establish the desired behavior?
  • How will you track your application of this practice?
  • Who might you ask to be your coach or accountability partner?

If you want to continue to grow and learn this is a great way to use your mind to train your brain to build these new habits.  Take some time this week to identify one behavior or skill you want to improve and identify the practice you can leverage to build this capability.

Make it a great week.  .  .  .    brian

Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown, Neuroscience for Leadership:  Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Neuroplasticity, Stentis Brain Animation Series, YouTibe.
Sara Barnard, Neuroplasticity:  Learning Physically Changes the, December 2010.
Judy Willis (Interview), Theoretical and Practical Insights on the Science of Learning, ASCD edge (blog).
Judy Willis, Teaching the Brain to Read:  Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension, ASCD, 2008.