How making promises made me a better leader

Obligation

Obligation

Answer honestly. Are you more likely to follow through on A) something you've promised someone else you would do or B) something you only promised yourself? (If you answered B, fall on your knees, baby, for you've been blessed by the gods!) Obligation has gotten a bum rap. Women have worked hard to overcome old patterns of dutiful people-pleasing and obligatory service. Freedom has become the new holy grail. Just as we no longer feel committed-for-life to our employers or neighborhoods or cellphone providers, it is easy to see freedom and obligation as opposing forces.

But a little obligation can be incredibly liberating, freeing us from having to decide everything anew, every day.

When I stepped out as a leader and created Strengths in Focus nearly a dozen years ago, the first thing I did was make a big public promise. I sent an email to all my friends and colleagues announcing that the following Monday, and every Monday thereafter, I would publish a written reflection on topics of interest to them.

Why did I do it? Because, as much as I dream of being one of those highly disciplined, super-productive, never-distracted writers I have read about, I knew the only way I would write productively was if I had a deadline.

For the next 9-10 years, I wrote something nearly every week, without fail. I had made a promise and I kept my promises.

Then, I longed for greater "freedom." After all, I had paid my dues. It was time I got to write when I felt like writing, when I had something really, really good to say.

That was an epic fail!

Without that one little structure around talking to my readers every week, other work tasks lost their structure as well. I was having to decide every day when, how, why, and whether to do what had previously been routine tasks. All these little decisions were turning into overwhelm and there were times when I began to freeze up.

Instead of leading the way, instead of focusing fully on my "what" (sharing transformative new ideas and insights with you), I was distracted by my "how." ("Should I write a post today? No, I need to work on the website. Maybe I'll start that new project.")

Sometimes, keeping a promise is just what we need to find real freedom. Research on creative problem-solving consistently finds that we are exponentially more creative when there are constraints than when there are no boundaries. (Note this fascinating article in Fast Company.)

Think about your own work and life. What are the small "obligations" that stitch your world together? What are the little promises you've made, to yourself or to others, that allow you to lead, that give you the freedom and structure and predictability to just do what you do - and do it well?

As for me, I'm going back to square one. Once every week (at a minimum), I will have something new and thoughtful to share with you. That's my promise.

Ahh, sweet freedom.