The Unspoken, Unpopular Trait of Successful Leaders

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There are a lot of articles, books, conferences, and studies about successful leaders. The traits of great leaders are broken down and analyzed in such great detail. And yet, there is one that is hardly ever mentioned. It is one that we as a society consider "bad". We would actually consider it as the #1 trait of unsuccessful people. What is it?

The ability to QUIT!

Wait? Quit?!? That sounds ridiculous. After all, "winners never quit, and quitters never win", right? Or what about Thomas the Engine that Could? What about seeing things through to the end? What about responsibility and consistency? How is it possible that quitting is a trait of successful leaders?

All of those are great questions. Until I read the book "Mastering the Art of Quitting", I had never viewed quitting as a positive characteristic.

In the book, Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein point out that ultra successful people know how to balance persistence with quitting. Knowing how and when to quit was just as important as persisting.

Their study on success and quitting has a very relevant application to leadership.

Leaders are change agents. We value leaders who can pivot. Leaders who recognize that change is coming, prepare for it, and execute it. Most people are not good at this, though.

An essential part of "pivoting" and "changing" is quitting the old goal - quitting the old way of doing things. By choosing a new goal, a new way of doing things, you in essence need to say "no" to the old goal. You have to quit it.

Why do you need to quit a goal? If you don't, you will experience ego depletion. Basically, you will dry out your will-power faster, and have less energy to approach your new goals. Most times, even when we say we have quit a goal, we have not actually released it in our mind. Due to societal pressures, quitting is viewed as a negative action. In order to succeed, you need to learn the art of quitting.

They enumerate a simple 4-step process for quitting, or, as they would call it "true goal disengagement".

Step 1: Cognitive Disengagement

The first thing you need to do is to decide that you no longer want to accomplish the original goal. You need to decide that this goal no longer serves you. It is no longer in your best interest. For example, I at first had the goal to become CFO and then eventually CEO of Raytheon. When I realized that I no longer wanted to work for a corporation in the long term, I had to decide that that goal no longer served me. I had to tell myself that I no longer wanted to become the CFO/CEO.

Step 2: Affective Disengagement

Whereas the first step was related to thoughts, the second step now tackles our emotions. Once you decide that a goal no longer serves you, you need to get your emotions on board. Be prepared to have a lot of backlash and surprise emotions arise from external and internal sources. "Quitting" is a heavily emotionally charged word. In a society that values persistence and success against all odds, it takes courage to quit.

This was a tough step for me. When we moved to the United States, the American Dream was "go to college, get a good job". That had been a life-time goal. I was emotionally invested in it. I wanted to make my family proud. I wanted to make my community proud. I wanted to make all the teachers who had invested in me proud. My perception of my value, of my "making the most of the gifts I was given", was tied to this goal. All these beliefs and emotions exploded out when I made the transition.

Step 3: Motivational Disengagement

Next, you choose the new goal. We are purpose-driven beings. So, if you quit a goal, an essential part of truly quitting is replacing that goal. It could be choosing to focus on another existing goal or choosing a new goal. A vacuum will be filled - it is the way of nature. If you don't replace the vacuum with a new goal, your brain will automatically go back to the old goal.

For me, my new goal was to become CEO of my own company. I had a clear path forward. I had a clear purpose. Well, as clear as anything entrepreneurial can be (which us very muddy, by the way). I knew I wanted to invest in people, to help them succeed, and the clearest way forward, given my corporate background, was to empower women and young professionals along their leadership journey.

Step 4: Behavioral Disengagement

This is where the rubber meets the road. The first three steps are mental preparation. Mindset is key, after all. Now you reinforce that mindset by behaving accordingly. You take actions towards your new goal. Taking physical action reinforces the new goal and enables you to manage your emotions. You can get excited about the new goal, the progress, etc... And eventually, the old goal will have no effect on you.

For me, I immediately threw myself into providing service. I started by doing live broadcasts of book reviews on Periscope. I interviewed authors. I created my own online programs such as the free 21 Day Career Champion and the Be Fearless Intensive.

A successful leader can go through this process for themselves, and helps their team and organization through it as well. Imagine how much more effective our organizational changes would be if we adequately prepared our teams for the mental side of change!

Streep and Bernstein's book is one of my top 9 must read books for leaders. If you would like additional information on what their book is about, you can download my free summary of the Top 9 Leadership Books for Today's Leader. It includes a one page summary of Mastering the Art of Quitting, and 8 other books that have been instrumental on my leadership journey.


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