Interview | Eric Martin on “Building Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance and Focus”

Eric Martin (author of Your Leadership Moment) breaks down reshaping one’s habits to successfully approach challenges in today’s world!

The biggest predictor of whether you’ll continue a habit is whether or not you’ve performed that habit in the last three weeks. That probably sounds shockingly obvious, but it’s true. Starting anything can feel daunting. As always, our only job is to take one small step and then the next one. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., ‘If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.’ Once we start, we tend to continue.” — Eric Martin, Author, Your Leadership Moment

[Interview excerpt from Authority Magazine between Parveen Panwar and Eric Martin]

Aspart of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Martin.

Eric is the author of the book, Your Leadership Moment, and the managing director at Adaptive Change Advisors. His work to “democratize leadership” aims to put leadership tools into the hands of anyone who seeks meaningful outcomes. A Detroit native turned prominent leadership expert, Eric has brought leadership development to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. His work extends the framework of Adaptive Leadership, a provocative leadership practice developed at Harvard. Eric has been published in Fast Company, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Environmental Leader.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Mychildhood is key to my work. I think that’s true for many of us. Growing up in the city of Detroit at the height of its decline, I saw firsthand how good people can get things wrong for all the right reasons. Most of my days were like those of every other kid growing up in the city. Wake up, walk to school, and stay out of trouble. On mornings when Dad arrived home from the firehouse, the city’s decay wafted into my bedroom in the form of the sweet scent of firetruck diesel and smoke from the previous night’s fires.

However, as the fires burned and as I grew older, I longed for some smart person, somewhere…a leader with the know-how to fix our situation. I gradually came to see that the people we were waiting for were actually here all along. It dawned on me that the change had to come from us, not just from our elected or even our corporate leaders.

It’s said that, as goes Detroit, so goes our county — as we’ve seen in the recent election. There’s good news for us in Detroit’s motto: “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.” For me this reflects the spirit and resilience of this country, our companies, and our democracy, and a resolve that endures to this day.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career?

My life’s work is dedicated to helping people lead change against all odds. My experience and deep belief is that anyone, anywhere, can lead change to improve their livelihood, their community, or their organization. It’s what I call democratizing leadership. I remember watching Dad leave our house at the crack of dawn to go to work at the firehouse. He strove lovingly, earnestly, and hopefully to avoid the grasp of the socioeconomic decay that enveloped us all. Through watching him, I learned to take one step at a time, to love my job, and, somehow, to seek out the cause of the fire of injustice.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve come to know many people like him, their daughters, their sons, and their colleagues in cities worldwide, at Google and all the big companies, in Appalachia, in the slums of Delhi and Nairobi, at major philanthropic organizations, and even in the White House. People — mostly good people — putting out fires as best they can, but often perfectly solving the wrong problems. I’ve also seen some of these people rise above the fray. They’ve exercised leadership and successfully tackled the deeper, unaddressed challenges within their teams, within their communities, and within themselves.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story?

Haha…yes, there’s a guy named Alex Grashow who taught me a lot about leadership, including what he called the one-armed hug. A one-armed hug is when you embrace and support with one arm and, with the other, turn the person around to face a reality they’d rather ignore…

…I remember a strategy meeting I was in many years ago with Alex. We were wrestling with a thorny organizational pivot that would require a significant shift in my role. It was a demotion in my mind at the time, though it ended being the greatest gift. During a break, I say to Alex privately, “You know, there’s a lot of resistance to this pivot.” Alex looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I know exactly where it’s coming from…” The one-armed hug. It took a minute to register that he was talking about me. Until that point, I had genuinely believed I was his strongest ally. In fact, it was me who was the biggest obstacle to progress. Again…how good people can get things wrong for the right reasons. Alex helped me to see that while still believing and investing in my potential. That was a big turning point. It helped me step onto the path I’m on now.

Can you share the funniest mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson did you learn?

This is a funny story. Humiliating, but funny. I was delivering a huge leadership workshop for a large healthcare system. There were over two-hundred people in the room. It was an odd-shaped room — a long, skinny rectangle rather so I couldn’t see many of the people and they couldn’t see me. So here I am standing on the long side of this skinny rectangle teaching a piece on the difference between leadership and authority, which is one of the key principles of Adaptive Leadership. I keep hearing one of the top executives dominating the conversation — or so I thought. It actuallywas multiple different people, but they had similar voices…remember, I can’t actually see who’s talking because of this skinny, rectangle set-up. In a moment of bad timing, I decide to call out the person again when they speak and make a big lesson of them. Well, that person turns out to be the spouse of the person who hired me. They were speaking for the first time and were actually going to make the same point that I was. I shut them down and paid a price for it in terms of my credibility. There were two lessons from that. First, never teach anyone anything unless you’re face-to-face — by which I mean in relationship with them. Second, stay away from rectangles.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

I don’t give advice. But, if pushed to do so, I’d say, follow your heart…is that too trite? Too obvious? Actually, I would phrase that differently. I would say pay attention to what feels right, what calls to your care. Maybe it’s a person or a piece of land. It can take years — decades even — to know what it is that’s calling you, but gradually a pattern will reveal itself. That pattern provides a clue, a window, into what you’re here to do. If you follow this call with intention and openness, success happens, though it might not look like what you thought it would look like.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There were many books. In high school, Siddartha by Herman Hesse intrigued me with the possibility of the ascetic path. It spoke to that part of me that knew even at a young age that that all the wrongness I had seen was somehow connected — that it was part of a system that was bigger than what we could see. That we were in this thing together. Whites, Blacks, untouchables, coal miners in Appalachia, and automotive executives alike. A seed of curiosity grew within me that sought to understand how this could be. Having only seen the decay of Detroit my whole life, worldly gain was never the prize, because it was all too distant. Yet, it seemed obvious to me that a more beautiful world was possible, at our fingertips even, if we could let go of the worldly things we cling to.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“When you can hold the pain of the world in your heart without losing sight of the vastness of the Great Eastern Sun, then you will be able to make a proper cup of tea,” by Chogyam Trungpa.

What this quote suggests to me is that simplicity and delicious beauty come from redemptive suffering. With all of the challenges we have in our companies and in society, from racial justice to conscious capitalism to environmental healing, can we hold the pain of the world in our heart without losing sight of the reason we do the work that we do?

What are some of the most exciting projects you are working on now?

Too many, to be honest. One project that I’m super excited about is the Sustainability Leadership Institute, which is a joint endeavor between my company, Adaptive Change Advisors, and the premier corporate sustainability organization in the US. Together with our corporate partners, we’re going to redefine the next era of sustainability — toward a more regenerative relationship with the natural world. I’m also deeply involved in a Gates-funded project called Boost, which aims to bring vaccinations, including the coronavirus vaccine, to populations worldwide who typically wouldn’t have access. I’m on the Board of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, which offers the best leadership development experience I know of for young clean energy entrepreneurs. Then there’s my support as an Advisory Board member to the American Resilience Project, which does cutting-edge filmmaking to mend the red-blue divide on climate progress.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits?

The habits that most interest me are leadership habits…or what I call leadership momentsLeadership moments are daily opportunities anyone can take to create change. They’re those moments that make your heart leap with hopeful anticipation — or with fear — of taking the next step. They hold promise for that long-awaited breakthrough or for the change you know is possible. They also hold the uncomfortable possibility that you, too, need to change. Leadership moments are something that anyone can exercise to achieve a better outcome than the one they’ve been offered.

You’ve likely already seen a leadership moment or exercised one yourself at some point. It’s when a set of circumstances arise that quietly ask, or sometimes scream, for someone to act. It’s when someone takes a stand that is outside of the norm or the status quo in favor of an outcome that matches higher ideals. The most significant leadership moments occur within seemingly ordinary, daily experiences. When you or a family member decided to call out your inappropriate uncle at Thanksgiving dinner — that was a leadership moment. When your friend took the risk to confront you about your polarizing political rant on Facebook rather than becoming complicit in it — that was a leadership moment. So, too, was the time your boss brought together your team with another to talk through your respective siloed behaviors. And the time your director of sustainability challenged the company to go beyond the minimum regulatory standard, because it was the right thing to do, not just because it made good business sense.

We who engage in leadership moments speak up, stand up, or ask questions that no one else will. Sometimes, we even take a knee in a form of patriotic protest.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

This gets back to the question you asked about my advice to young people. To trust what calls to your care requires developing the habit of having a healthy skepticism for authority. This is something else I learned early in life. When your city burns uncontrollably, when car accidents and home break-ins go unattended by the police, when home prices decrease rather than increase in value, it doesn’t take much to become realistic about what authority can and can’t provide. We see this playing out every day on a national and global stage as people question their reliance on corporate, political, and social institutions of authority. We increasingly avoid authorizing these institutions to guide or play a role in our own lives. Rather than relying on authority to provide a clear path, I’ve grown an appreciation and pride for the struggle of charting a new one.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

The biggest predictor of whether you’ll continue a habit is whether or not you’ve performed that habit in the last three weeks. That probably sounds shockingly obvious, but it’s true. Starting anything can feel daunting. As always, our only job is to take one small step and then the next one. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” Once we start, we tend to continue.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

When it comes to focus, an important habit is to keep your sights on the horizon, not just what’s in front of you. It’s what I call “getting on the balcony”, which was an idea developed at Harvard over many years. Few ideas are more obvious or more critical than the need to get perspective and focus in the midst of action. Any military officer, for example, knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, even in the “fog of war.” Great athletes can at once play the game and observe it as a whole — as Walt Whitman described it, “being both in and out of the game.”

Wellness is actually deeply connected to wholeness — and wholeness itself is connected to the habit of staying grounded. Literally. This was impressed upon me by a traditional Mexican health practitioner who I met in, of all places, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Using rosemary and other local herbs, Sofia makes a truly wonderful skin lotion. She brought little bottles of it to India to gift to whomever she met. I asked her what makes the lotion so potent. It’s aboutthe connection she has to the land, she said, not just about the raw materials. “True health and wellness come from a feeling of wholeness in relationship to the land.” That’s something you can’t fake — or simply mass produce by extracting the ‘active ingredients’ from a plant in an R&D department.

Regarding performance, much leadership and management literature has been devoted to cultivating the habit of “peak performance”. There’s actually interesting research on this at Harvard having to do with alpha, beta, delta, and other kinds of brainwaves. It turns out that peak performance — and focus too — happens when you can deliberately shift amongst brainwaves depending on the task at hand. Multitasking is best done using alpha waves. Deep, forward thinking in theta waves, etc.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

For focus in the workplace, the habit of getting on the balcony can include simple practices, like a 5-minute check-in and a 1-minute one-word check-out in a meeting. For larger projects, it can include after-action reviews (AARs), which were pioneered by the US Army, and have tremendous application for business too. Getting on the balcony is actually an age-old practice. Hindus and Buddhists call it “karma yoga,” or mindfulness. Jesuits call it “contemplation in action.” Imagine yourself “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back from the action. Then asking, “What’s really going on here?” My own practice of getting on the balcony includes taking a personal retreat every year, just a few days, usually in nature somewhere, to clear my head.

The practice of wellness often comes down to finding something or someone to take care of. Maybe it’s a garden or small plot of land. Maybe it’s taking care of an elderly relative. Or tending to your physical health or to an important project at work. Learning to recognize what’s calling to your care and attention is one of the most important practices in life and work.

For performance, luckily again, there are age-old practices for entering into a peak performance state, such as tai-chi, yoga, taking a long, hot shower — and of course, getting a good night’s rest. There are also collective performance practices, like the U-Process which was developed at MIT. I’ve used this and other collective performance practices for years in the design of longitudinal, systems change projects.

Cultivating these practices is easy. The hard part, actually, is undoing the habit of getting stuck in the alpha brainwave state. This is where most of the day-to-day office pressures — the “dance floor” pressures — tend to keep us. The constant pings and eye candy on social media work against us because they keep us in alpha-wave thinking. Staying off of social media — and even doing a ‘fast’ from the addictive, 24-hr news cycle — are great habits to get into to free your mind to be in higher performing states. I’m in the middle of a 40-day media and social media ‘fast’ as we speak.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s great to talk more about this. You can’t achieve a state of flow in the same way that you can achieve other things. In other words, it’s not something that you can strive for. In fact, the more you try to achieve flow state the further away it gets.

So how do you get into a flow state? There’s a leadership practice that I call “departicipating”. Departicipating is a very gradual and subtle practice. It means noticing the things that take you away from flow state, and then letting go of those things. It’s important though not to force yourself to do this, or to let go of things before you’re ready to do so. Flow isn’t some big new thing that now you *need* to do. That feeling of needing to do something, which often comes from fear, anger, frustration, or panic, is actually just the same old ‘achieving’ mindset.

When you’re cultivating a flow state, it’s important to remember that departicipating is not a substitute for other kinds of action. It also isn’t about not acting. You have no choice but to act. You act every day. Even doing nothing is an action. Rather, it’s a curiosity of spirit that underlies action.

Another word for flow state is humility. With humility, a space opens between problem and solution, between action and reaction. It allows you to trust that you will do or say the ‘right’ thing when the moment occurs. It’s a step out of the familiar into trust and the action that comes with it. It’s a kind of not knowing. In fact, it’s good to not know what to do. Much better than thinking you know what to do, but actually don’t.

Give yourself permission to act from a different spirit, from a deeper sense of purpose and relationship to the complexity of the challenges you face. Allow yourself to act from a spirit of experimentation, play, exploration, or something that makes you feel alive, however illogical, irrational, naïve, irresponsible, or impractical it seems. Whatever that next step is, it will come with a little bit of uncertainty. It’ll also require courage. Yet, from this place of honesty emerges action, a genuine commitment to sustain leadership work that, over time, reveals answers that were not visible from where you started.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement would definitely be about democratizing leadership. When I was young, it was in the shadows of Detroit’s abandoned factories, movie theaters, and grocery stores that I saw the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle. From this place, I’ve come to believe that real change happens when ordinary people discover the courage to give voice to each other’s dignity. That’s what I call democratizing leadership. It’s for people who want to do something about the captivating, yet predictable, cycle of ambitious promise and the inevitable disappointment from the inaction of people in positions of authority.

Our world today is being shaped by two distinct but mutually reinforcing forces. The first is the rise of authoritarianism. The second is expansive distribution of power to regular people — the democratization of everything. At the same time, we are faced with overwhelming issues, from climate change to rising income inequality. Yet, opportunities still abound. For example, to move beyond corporate sustainability into truly regenerative business practices, to cross over into the lives of others rather than push them away in fear, and to sustain the spirit of democracy, which was designed to engender creative conflict rather than muffle it.

Movement building begins with sharing stories and learning to tell your own story. We all have one. Our stories are worthy of telling. Through the stories I share, most recently in my book, my hope is to ignite a recognition of our deep similarities, despite our superficial differences. To understand why good people can be compelled to set fire to their own lives and act in hateful ways, why places like Detroit — once the “engine of democracy” — can get it wrong, for all the right reasons. And, despite all of this, how people can, and are, maintaining resilience and hope on the winding road to creating meaningful change. With this recognition, and a practical framework for leading change, we can create the leadership needed at every level of our organizations and communities — not just at the top of them — to tackle the challenges afire in the world today.

That’s how deep the change must go if we’re going to address the crisis of our times and to create the more beautiful world that our heart knows is possible.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them.

Hmm, I’d say Elon Musk. Not for the obvious reasons, but rather because if he truly found himself, he could do truly amazing things for this world. I’d like to help him with that.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m in all the usual places like YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a book page for Your Leadership Moment and my company Adaptive Change Advisors.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Parveen Panwar is an entrepreneur, angel investor and columnist, as well as a yoga, holistic health, breathwork and meditation enthusiast. His life story is one of addiction, stress, depression, anxiety, failures, confusion, negativity, lack of purpose, resilience, and finally connecting with his true self. Parveen took a long journey of reflection and self-discovery and reinvented himself. He is now dedicated to helping others activate their own hidden inner powers and live the lives that they want. To teach people how to reshape their mindset, uncover their inner strength and motivation, to create a life of higher purpose.

Eric Martin is the Author of Your Leadership Moment | Democratizing Leadership in an Age of Authoritarianism. He is also Managing Director of Adaptive Change Advisors (ACA), the preeminent organization for mission-driven Adaptive Leadership development.

Your Leadership Moment

Democratizing Leadership in an Age of Authoritarianism

Be a leader who changes the world. Your Leadership Moment is an account of the democratizing leadership of three ordinary people leading extraordinary change. It’s an exciting expansion of Adaptive Leadership that can help anyone learn to lead. Through stories of success and failure, Martin teaches what’s possible when people discover the capacity and courage to lead regardless of identity, history, or access to power and financial capital. His book provides tools and techniques to discover and leverage your leadership moments for a better world.

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