Formula for success

Author duo Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren highlight how balance can unlock spectacular leadership 

Published 3 years ago on Jan 02, 2021 5 minutes Read

The benefits of balance
To develop any capacity requires repetition and practice. This tends to be the focus when trying to improve performance. Seldom does anyone look at the opposite of this. What is the opposite of an activity? It’s rest. High-performance athletes spend a great deal of time resting. The same is true of creativity. If you want extreme insight, then you also need the opposite. You have to allow the mind to stop and repair itself. This is not always a logical choice. If you want to be better, the usual instinct is to try harder. But speak to any golf pro. There is a magical moment, when golfers are asked to experiment by trying to hit the ball 3/10 rather than 12/10 hard. The result is often miraculous with the ball travelling further and more accurately. Why? Because golf is not a game of strength and nor is leadership. There’s a clue in the last sentence. It’s supposed to be a game. It’s supposed to be fun. Why? Because every experimental study shows that people perform better when they’re enjoying what they do. They’re more relaxed. They’re more confident. They bear stress more easily. They use less effort. This is why it’s game-changing.

Game-changing performances cannot be achieved without reframing and a change of attitude. Why? Because if performance increase is a conscious effort, it is unsustainable. It needs to be a habit. Habits are unconscious and by their very nature, sustainable, because the individuals are unaware of making a conscious effort.

It is the very presence of the left brain or scientific mind that invalidates and undermines the right brain or conceptual mind. This is the very source of the imbalance that then manifests as behaviour. If we are steeped only in a scientific, reductionist model of leadership, then we are de facto unbalanced. To achieve balance, we have to accept that we don’t need either reductionism or conceptualism – we need both in balance and the equilibrium we seek must become a habit for it to be sustainable.

Habits and instincts

If we’re going to change behaviour, we need to understand why it is so embedded and difficult to achieve. This is where habits come in. It’s been said that excellence is a habit and that habits are what you do most frequently. To move easily into a different approach requires the ability to change habits and to understand willpower. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a habit as ‘a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.’ So, any practice or activity can be a habit if it is often repeated, but to the point of total assimilation. It defines instinct as ‘an innate, typically fixed pattern of behaviour in animals in response to certain stimuli.’ An instinct tends to be acquired innately without any formal training, instruction or experience. They sound very similar and they are.

They can be both good and bad. Good, in that they enable a person or team to maintain their position with relative ease. Bad, in that if you need performance improvement, you have to unlock the system, change it and re-lock it.

Whether someone is behaving instinctively or out of habit is immaterial. Both can be reprogrammed and changed. But what is it that makes change happen?

Timing and psychology

Let’s look at gym membership. The gym, fitness and health club market is valued at around $27 billion in the US. The total number of gym members in the US alone stands at just over 50 million. Globally, they account for $75.7 billion in revenue.

The vast majority of people taking out gym membership do so in January. The majority of these will not last five months. In fact, per cent of new gym members don’t even make it past the end of January. Then another 14 per cent drop out by February. So, February is a better time to join than January. Women are more likely to drop out than men. Among those who joined a gym and dropped out within the first year, women accounted for 14 per cent versus just 8 per cent for men. Gym owners only expect about 18 per cent of people who buy memberships to use them consistently. In fact, to be profitable, they need about 10 times as many members as they have capacity for.

There’s a strong angle to building habits around other people. 44 per cent of gym-goers exercise with one other person. The gym is also a place to meet new people. 30 per cent of members admit that they never actually break a sweat. They’re too busy chatting up others.


There’s no doubt that some can achieve change through sheer willpower. But not everyone has this level of drive. Chances are, if the task is not enjoyable, then it will not be sustainable. You can see this played out every year in gym memberships. People, when rested, are full of resolve, but then lack willpower once they are back under habitual strain.

The American Psychological Association believes that almost a third of Americans think willpower is the most significant barrier to change.

Lack of willpower isn’t the only reason you might fail to reach your goals. It’s the ability to defer gratification. Or to put it another way, resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.


One of the most famous tests used to predict the outcome of children’s education is Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test.4 This is where children are told that if they don’t eat a marshmallow that’s placed in front of them, they will be given another if they can wait. This is held to be a reliable indicator of whether kids can exert self-discipline to forgo rewards in favour of a bigger reward later. The control of these ‘hot emotions’ with the Marshmallow Test is now legendary.

The correlation is clear, but what we really need now is an adult marshmallow test for those who would lead boards and governments. These boardroom marshmallows would look like unethical behaviour that boosts short-term profits. The cabinet marshmallows are the short-term popularity that comes with fiscal laxity. We need bigger and different marshmallows.

This extract from The Infinite Leader by Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren is ©2020 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page