December is exciting. We’re on the cusp of a new year — busily wrapping up projects and planning for the future. Many of us are joined by family and friends to celebrate the holidays; at work we’re reflecting on the past year and reinvigorating our strategies for high performance in the year to come. But December is also a month that marks, for many, a lackluster commitment to our larger goals for self-improvement and growth (or even total neglect of those goals altogether); often, we hastily cast our best intentions aside to ready our homes for holiday guests, make room in our bellies for indulgent sweets, and try to juggle the tasks of the season on top of our duties at work, with family, and with community. Surely we can’t shop for presents, deliver strong results at work, entertain guests, and stay on track with our carefully laid plans for advancing our leadership or personal development. It’s too much. So why try at all. We’ll resuscitate our dedication to ourselves in the new year — or so the popular thinking goes.
But the trick to meeting our goals — in leadership and in life — is being consistent even when things become challenging or overwhelming. This consistency is also known as discipline. And most of us know that it’s essential to achieving what we want, and doing so with excellence. But discipline alone does not guarantee success. There is an equally crucial component: we also need the ability to remain flexible when our workload or life-demands increase. Or, when the situation changes, we must be able to nimbly adapt and keep forging forward. We need, resoundingly, both discipline and flexibility. It is only when we have cultivated both, in a balanced fashion, that we are able to stay the course in times of turmoil, high-activity, or change.
A good plan well executed beats a brilliant plan poorly executed every time.
Why do we need both? Discipline ensures we keep moving forward with fortitude towards our goals — whether it is learning a language, keeping our health on track, or improving our leadership profile. Flexibility empowers us to change our approach to our plan, or smartly alter our tactics when they are not producing desired results — without dooming our entire effort overall. Leadership, in particular, is very Darwinian; the best leaders are the ones who are most able to adapt with agility no matter the perceived roadblock. Discipline + Flexibility = Steady Progress (not perfection).
It’s important to remember that a good plan well executed beats a brilliant plan poorly executed every time. We have to be careful not to allow perfection to become the enemy of excellence. When we hold perfection, not progress, as our gold standard it becomes a slippery slope towards excuse-making, inaction, and exasperation.
Take for example the person on a weight loss plan who reasons that they can’t adhere to their plan perfectly during the holiday season. So they stop trying at all, abandoning the effort completely and gorging throughout the month. This “all or nothing” mindset is deeply counterproductive. Instead, they might attack their plan with discipline and flexibility, perhaps arranging a way to stick to their goals 80% of the time, while allowing for indulgences 20% of the time — remaining on track while allowing for some alterations (fitness gurus call this approach the 80/20 rule).
Or consider the manager who is working on becoming a more accessible leader (perhaps in response to some feedback from her direct reports). But she finds she is unable to make as much time as she hoped for one-on-one interactions due to the inevitably hectic priorities of the year’s end. So she abandons the effort altogether and cancels all the scheduled facetime on her calendar, only to postpone her initiative for the new year. If she can’t be perfect, why do it at all. But what if this leader had, in a flexible fashion, found a way to shorten the facetime but make it more meaningful. Or split the meetings up between December, and the first quarter of 2016; she would still be on track towards her goal of being more accessible but wouldn’t be so overwhelmed as to limit her ability to meaningfully contribute. Again, discipline and flexibility are the behaviors needed to achieve progress with distinction.
Leadership is about getting things done.
A final example that illustrates this point is something we have seen time and again: leaders with noble intentions carefully research and develop a personal leadership model that will guide their actions — and keep them anchored to their purpose as they navigate the stormy seas of decision making. They read all the leadership literature. They carefully reflect on their style. They ruminate on what leadership means to them. They do the work to develop a personalized approach, and a plan for putting it into action. But after one or two weeks of implementing their new way of leading and not seeing instantaneous results, they give up. And they’re back on the hunt for another model. Just like that! Without even giving it a proper chance.
On the leadership journey, that behavior represents a fatal lack of discipline and flexibility. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s always helpful to remember, when faced with challenges that make us feel like throwing in the towel, that leadership is about getting things done. We must find a way to accomplish stuff, no matter the obstacle, no matter how hard it seems. If you’ve got a plan, stick to it. If the situation changes — adapt, be flexible, think creatively, and find a way to tenaciously evolve your method. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to keep going. Just as the key to effective leadership is an abundant approach that is tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people — the secret to reaching your goals is also abundant: it’s discipline and flexibility used together for excellent results (no matter the season).