Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. – James Clear, Atomic Habits.


A significant chunk of our waking time is spent on autopilot, up to 45% according to Duke University research. In this state we are barely aware of the many, minute behaviours that make up each day.

There is good reason for this habitual repetition. Our brain, the ultra-efficient processor, is adept at saving energy. It would be impossible for the brain to plan, guide and monitor every action of every day. Rather, it focuses selectively (remember the selective attention test where you had to count the number of times players pass a ball? Watch a version of it here), defaulting to preferred and established pathways where possible, saving power for other needs. Default responses are activated by cues in the environment, initiated without intention and run to completion with minimal conscious control. We call them habits. They take around 90 days to establish and are notoriously difficult to shift.

Habits built on past experience may have been useful at some point, but not all of them are necessarily desirable. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg spent 120 weeks on various New York Times bestseller lists, suggesting that there is fair appetite for changing our less wanted habits.

Changing our habits

Habits work in a 3-step loop: cue, routine, reward. We can change our habits by changing the ‘routine’ part of the loop. Experimenting with identifying the cues, changing the routine and ascertaining whether we are still experiencing the same reward is the method proposed by Duhigg for changing a habit.

To give an example, Duhigg explains how he was in the habit of eating a chocolate biscuit each afternoon at around 3 o clock. He tried going for a walk instead of heading to the restaurant for the biscuit – changing the routine – but his craving for the sweet treat persisted. A little more experimentation with alternative routines led him to discover that a 5-10 minute chat with colleagues seemed to produce the same reward, that is, he had forgotten all about the chocolate biscuit. The ‘social interaction’ routine is replacing the ‘biscuit-eating’ routine. Over time this change of habit will stem a steady weight gain and leave a few more pennies in the pocket.

Getting started 

If you are struggling to get started, the trick according to habits expert James Clear is to start small, aim to improve one thing by one percent, do it in less than two minutes and do it again tomorrow.

The most critical habit to build, perhaps we can see it as a super-habit, is the habit of willpower. Willpower spills over into all aspects of life. It is strengthened by making conscious efforts: factor one activity into each day that requires a lot of discipline, delay gratification in small amounts.

Willpower is also positively impacted through preserving a degree of autonomy, where you have latitude to decide on and complete your own tasks. A lack of autonomy can be a profound stressor, as noted by Richard Sutton in his work “The Stress Code” (the likely topic of a future blog).

The sum of our autopilots

We hope for complex organizational challenges to be solved through a revised strategy, a new leadership mandate, a restructuring or the digital transformation. And yet it is the sum of all the little habits, the organisational autopilot, that makes the organisation what it is and directs what it achieves.

In a world where trust is reported as low – a condition negatively impacting relationships, engagement, voluntary effort, innovation, organisational alignment, stakeholder confidence and overall business results – raising our awareness of the autopilot, all those minute actions that build trust or deplete it, is a useful undertaking.

As leaders, we can go way beyond just ‘doing what we say we will do’. We can build the habits that build trust, and aim to change the ones that diminish it.

I have selected two (of a total of nine) habits that build trust, outlined by John Blakely:

  1. Go beyond the profit motive to deliver random acts of kindness to your stakeholders.
  2. Help others to deliver on their promises, through coaching and mentoring.


What do you repeatedly do, that makes you the leader you are? What can you do right now to establish habits that build trust?


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Power as autonomy

We are perhaps most familiar with a conceptualisation of power as influence, one of two types of power investigated in a 2016 study reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The power of influence expresses a desire to control others. It can also involve taking responsibility for others. A second type of power, power as autonomy,has little to do with others in the sense that this type of power is not a product of wanting to control others. Rather, it allows a person to ignore and resist the influence of others and thus to play a role in shaping individual destiny – it expresses the desire to be free. The researchers in the study found that people crave power not be the master of others, but to be the master of their own domains and to control their fates. An increase in power as autonomy seems to quench the thirst for more power. (An increase in power as influence does not have the same result.)

Generally, when people say they want power, what they really want is autonomy. And when they get that autonomy, they tend to stop wanting power.” – Julie Beck, in The Atlantic

These findings are fascinating within a digital context, where the battle to spend time ‘wisely’ is so real. Time spentonline is the metric that most designers chase – this is because more time spent online means more time to collect information about you, your behaviours, your preferences, and to experiment with different advertisements to increase their impact. The stickiness of platforms is thus purposefully designed in, with features such as push notifications drawing us back to platforms left only minutes ago. A mobile phone on a desk has been shown to decrease scores on cognitive tests. The mere presence of a smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand. This applies when the phone is on silent and face down. One could argue this is power as influence at its best.

Our battle of ‘time well spent’ has a dark side, in that most of what gets captured about us is below our conscious awareness. You may have started to pick up on ads and YouTube content pushed to you that seem eerily congruent with aspects of your life that you do not recall explicitly sharing. There are two kinds of very profitable online ads. Contextual ads are based on content on a website. Search for a car, for example, and relevant ads pop up. These ads do not need to know or to have stored your personal data. Behavioural ads are the second type, and they are based on a personal profile that is compiled through your online activity, and even offline activity in some cases. They follow you around from website tomobile app based on your private information and they enable online discrimination, manipulation and the creation of filter bubbles. Our digital modi operandi provides fertile ground not only for the gathering of your life’s daily details but also for experimentation and ‘nudging’ your behaviour towards a desired outcome. The sophistication and pervasiveness of these influences makes them hard to ignore. If both kinds of ads are profitable, why does a ‘dark’ footprint of all your activity need to be stored? Is this an affront to your power as autonomy, your power to shape your own destiny and to feel free in your choices?

Tristan Harris, former ethicist at Google, thinks so. He is in the business of helping the tech industry to more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential.

‘By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs… Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.’ – Tristan Harris

A self-described expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities, Harris poses valid questions, such as, how often is tech interrupting you from what you really mean to be doing? Is tech, with all its pings and pop-ups, stealing time from you? And a personal favourite of mine, for the shift in thinking it provokes: “What does the future of technology look like when you’re designing for the deepest human values?”

New tools are available to us. Exploring their usefulness may help combat feelings of subjugation from the power of influence we are exposed to, and build our power of autonomy. One such tool is DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track activity and also allows the user to control how much of their activity gets shared. DuckDuckGo uses contextual advertising. CEO Gabriel Weinberg is devoted to protecting privacy amidst the rampant data framing prevalent online today. Companies are making money off of your private information online without your consent. The Internet should not feel so creepy.

The DuckDuckGo Mission: “Too many people believe that you simply can’t expect privacy on the Internet. We disagree and have made it our mission to set a new standard of trust online.”

We focus optimistically on everything that tech can do for us, and so we should. But as Harris notes, living moment to moment with the fear of missing something isn’t how we’re built to live. Technology could be helping to create more meaningful interaction. The metric of ‘time well spent’ is a radical departure from the metric of ‘time spent online’. We can ‘nudge’ this in the right direction.

For more on this topic, watch the Ted Talk “How better tech could protect us from distraction”, by Tristan Harris. Also read Gabriel Weinberg’s article “What if we all just sold non-creepy advertising?

This article first published on Talent Talks Africa.

Four types of purposeWith uncertainty comes a desire for something to believe in.  Managers are not loyal to a company, or a boss. They put their devotion and allegiance to those values they believe in and find satisfying. ‘Something to believe in’ is immune to fads, and provides hope for a future that has less clarity than most would like.

Simon Sinek bases his work on the desire to believe in something. He popularised the Golden Circle formula, propelling him to leadership guru status almost overnight. His TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” that explains how the Golden Circle works is sitting on 44.6 million views. Find your WHY (what you believe in, the reason you get up in the morning), Sinek urges businesses and leaders, and communicate that first. Then speak to the HOW and the WHAT. Most people start with the HOW or the WHAT and they allow these aspects to dominate. They miss valuable opportunities to reach others in a place that instinctively matters to them.

A reason to get up in the morning matters to humans. We strive to make sense of the world around us, and to attach meaning to it. A sense of purpose purpose anchors our efforts and focuses them, it gives significance to our collections of daily actions and entertainments as the months and years slip past us. In a changeable age, discovery and ‘ventilation’ of a purpose is a way of taking a measure of control over chaotic conditions. We trade the position of ‘disrupted’ for that of intentional ‘designer’ of our lives.

Finding the purpose and ventilating it is equally vital to enduring business success, says Nikos Mourkogiannis. Purpose is valuable in organisations as it makes employees feel that their work is worthwhile. Purpose keeps driving the company forward in times that are taxing and complex, providing a clear reference point to inform, guide and direct decision and action, and justifying the risks associated with innovation and the longer term payoffs. Purpose maintains energy levels. When a company loses energy, its most often down to a lack of purpose. The sum of all these parts combines precisely into competitive advantage. Not all companies have a purpose, assures Mourkogiannis, but the enduringly successful ones do.

In order for purpose to motivate and drive, it must have a moral dimension. Mourkogiannis puts forward four such sets of moral ideas for us to look at in our workplaces. Each is underpinned by a philosopher.

  1. Discovery “The New” I have freely chosen it.

Philosopher: Kierkegaard.

Companies: IBM, Sony, Intel, Virgin.

  1. Excellence “The Good” It constitutes fulfillment.

Philosopher: Aristotle

Companies: Apple, BMW, The Economist, Berkshire Hathaway.

  1. Altruism “The Helpful” It increases happiness.

Philosopher: Hume

Companies: Walmart, HP, Nordstrom.

  1. Heroicism “The Effective” It demonstrates achievement.

Philosopher: Nietzsche

Companies: Microsoft, Ford.

Every company will manifest its purpose differently. And a coherent alignment between purpose and strategy is impossible to copy. It appears that ‘believing in something’ may offer the advantage that organisations crave in uncertain times.

What does your business believe in?

Dive deeper into Purpose by reading “Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies“, by Nikos Mourkogiannis.


The world has never moved this quickly, yet it will never again move this slowly.  Exposure to unknowns will amplify. When situations are unfamiliar it may be best to approach them as curious mysteries, rather than attempt to solve them as puzzles based on a logic that worked before. Think about first principles, encourages Peter Thiel, author of Zero to One, rather than formulas. That’s how we find value in unexpected places. Every time we create something fresh and strange, we go from a ‘Zero’ to a ‘One’. The more we create, the more we thrive. But are we too tempted to copy, in place of invent?

Creativity is by its very nature disturbing, and yet humans are designed for creating and ‘making meaning’. We are the only animals that can invent new things and better ways of making them. The more we compete through ‘match and beat’, the less we gain. In business we call this the race to the bottom, where products become commoditized. Machines already perform most repetitive, monotonous and dangerous tasks much better than humans. They are set to take on a lot more. Machines may well free us humans up for safer, interesting and more purposeful work. It’s likely however that we’ve fallen out of touch – and may need to work quite hard at rediscovering and refining a human contribution. Both at school and at work, we are conditioned into applying logic, solving puzzles, finding the answer. We are less skilled in generating possibilities, ‘seeing’ the possible magic, not easily seen, or seen only by few. A formula-culture has also taken root. We look for the formula that is easy to apply, and sure to bring success.

If you are copying the most successful companies you can think of, you are not learning from them, says Thiel. Shane Parrish, from Farnam Street Blog, reinforces the same message with his statement: “There simply is no formula for success. Giving up that notion might be the most helpful thing you can do today.” It is time to step out of the race to the bottom, as humans, as businesses, to move beyond the relentless clamber for competitive advantage and growth at all costs, suited and glamorized on countless cover pages of business magazines across the globe. We can get better at exploring that magic we bring as humans – hard to define, hard to measure, hard to copy – and set it within a frame that has more meaning for us, one we can call generative rather than extractive.

By creating new technologies, humans can rewrite the plan of the world.

What are you challenging in the world? What do you want to change?

Regular HBR & Forbes contributor Dorie Clark believes that the responsibility of our age is to use the tools now at our at disposal to have a defined impact on the world, no matter how small. In place of learning to gather dust, or to ‘stay up to speed’, we can cultivate a questioning mindset to discover and define a niche, build a professional network, garner a following, get heard. Standing for something larger than ourselves, something greater than the way we feel in this particular moment of life, in this relationship or workspace, makes us rise above the chaos and transience in our midst.

Where to start? Think about what your values are, write them down, interrogate their coherence with your actions and your context. What makes sense for you? What does not? Values are not hereditary, as Alvaro González-Alordanotes tells us.

“The best ideas don’t stay tied to their creators forever, they go out into the world and make a difference because people make them their own.”


It is easier to copy a model than to create something new. But fine tuning old lines leads to dead ends.

The more we compete through ‘match and beat’, the less we gain. The world has never moved this quickly, yet it will never again move this slowly.  Exposure to the unknown will amplify. Machines already perform most repetitive, monotonous and dangerous tasks better than humans. What if, as Peter Thiel asks, we could combine new technologies with the human capacity to innovate? Could humans work miracles?

The more we create, the more we thrive. The moment of creation is singular. Every time we create something fresh and strange, we go from zero to one. The challenge of our time is how we free our human energy for creative work. It is also how we, as humans, bring purpose to that work.

“By creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.” – Peter Thiel



The WEF has issued a triple investment imperative: invest in reskilling at-risk workers, upskilling the workforce generally and in building learning centres in organisations. This is in preparation for the looming Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution that has become terribly fashionable in business parlance of late. One would think that 4IR seems quite distant from the realities of our everyday workplaces. Mine for one is not yet characterised by an interoperability of systems, and I complete most of my own dangerous and difficult tasks, with little assistance from connected machines.

a new mandate for business & leaders

Yet the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Study paints a picture that’s worthy of our attention. A significant level of unease on the part of employees is reported, with two thirds of people concerned about their future job prospects in the face of automation. This striking finding is most acute in developing markets. The new fear stalking the office corridor is the fear of robots. Deep involvement in discussion and in the process of sharing news may signal the desire to regain control and take back power. Engagement with media has jumped from 50 to 72 percentage points year on year.

But something else interesting is happening too. A new mandate is being issued for business and leaders.

Edelman has been measuring trust in the four institutions of government, business, media and NGO’s since 2001. South Africa was added in 2014. In the past, a lack of trust was reported across all four institutions. Trust has shifted from top-down (trusting those in positions of authority), to peer-to-peer (trusting people you perceive to be like you, and not necessarily those in positions of authority), to ‘local’, where individuals believe that they can control the relationship with their employers and that it is within their power to influence what happens within organisations. A new ‘trusted work’ paradigm is emerging. Within this paradigm, the rules are quite different. Employers are expected to re-assume responsibility for the learning and development torch that was ceremoniously handed down to individuals with the demise of the ‘job for life’ in the latter half of the last century. It could be argued that we had just started to get used to the psychological contract dictate that we are the masters of our own learning, growth and career destinies. The psychological contract is the term used to describe the unwritten set of obligations between employer and employee. Your working hours, job role and pay may be set and signed on paper, all that you expect your employer to deliver may not. Often these expectations are not articulated. However, unmet expectations erode trust, with the result that employee engagement declines, as does voluntary and creative effort. Given that creativity is a new currency for organisations, severed contracts are potentially disastrous.

The Edelman study shows that development, in the form of reskilling and retraining for digital futures, is falling at the foot of the employer once again. Employers are expected to engage on and address critical issues such as diversity, empowering with information, and retraining or reskilling so as to alleviate fears associated with digital, Fourth Industrial Revolution futures. In return, employees will advocate for the organization engaging broadly in the community on behalf of the organisation, and they will also be loyal to it.

Preparing for the future is becoming a shared responsibility.

75% of people believe that business can make money and improve society, says the study. The ‘trusted work’ paradigm requires that employers have a big idea for the company, a social aspiration or a purpose that employees can feel strongly about. Leaders, by their actions, are expected to persuade others that trust can be restored. 75% also believe that CEOs must stand up and act on important issues, and not wait for government. This finding is particularly noteworthy for South Africa: as trust falls, business is expected to lead.

Do not aim to build resilience, focus instead on becoming antifragile, says the statistician, scholar, essayist and former risk analyst, Nassim Taleb. Taleb looks at problems of probability, uncertainty and randomness. Whereas the resilient take shocks and stay the same, the antifragile get better. Staying the same is well out of fashion, it seems, and rather risky too. A new mandate is emerging for business and leaders, stand up with purpose and lead.