Leadership Inertia- Friend & Foe

For a leader, inertia is both a friend and a foe.  In 1687, Isaac Newton published his famous theory on inertia.  Summarized it simply states, “A body at rest tends to stay at rest while a body in motion tends to stay in motion.”

For a leader, understanding the theory of inertia is critical to leading a successful team.

I met Isaac Newton at least twice my senior year in high school.  The first time was in Mr. Berger’s physics class.  The second time was when a girl friend’s car wouldn’t start.

Isaac Newton

When her car died, I decided to jump out of the car and push start it.  The problem was, I was not strong enough to move the 1981 Oldsmobile by myself.  I found a friend and with his help, we rolled the car forward until it started.

In fact, once it was rolling, he jumped in the car to steer while I kept the car rolling by myself. Once it was rolling, it needed half as much force to keep it rolling.

A Body At Rest Tends To Stay At Rest:  The Foe

Whether I was taking over a new team or was trying to jump start an initiative that had lost momentum.  I soon learned that getting things going required a lot of effort up front.

Just like getting that car moving, I needed to exert a lot of energy on my team to get them moving forward if they we were beginning from a stand still.  I would get frustrated at times.

“Why do I have to work so hard to get this team moving?” 

Answer:  “Because they were not moving before!”

The Moral Of The Story:  

It takes a lot of effort to start a team moving in the right direction.

A Body In Motion Tends To Stay In Motion:  The Friend

Once things are moving in the right direction, it takes a lot less effort to keep things going.  Once that Oldsmobile or once my team got moving, I exerted a lot less energy to keep them rolling.

The key was to not let that car or my team roll to a halt again.  If they lost momentum, the amount of force I needed to use to move them forward would increase dramatically.

As a leader, maintaining momentum once it is established, takes diligence and effort.  However, it is much easier than overcoming the inertia of a team a rest.

Staying In Motion:

Once a team is headed in the right direction, here are a few keys to using inertia to your benefit:

  • Consistently communicate goals.
  • Consistently communicate tactics used to accomplish the goals.
  • Consistently communicate progress towards the goals.
  • Make corrections quickly while still moving forward.
  • Develop the next set of goals and tactics prior to completing the current ones.

Each of these points above requires thoughtful planning and proactive leadership.  But each of them helped me keep my team from rolling to a stop.  A team with momentum tends to maintain that momentum with a lot of planning and just a little effort from its leader.

The Bottom Line:

Inertia is both a friend and a foe to a leader.  Until a leader exerts enough force to get a team moving forward, the team will likely remain where they are.

But, once the team is moving in the right direction, the leader’s job changes.  The leader must now supply the force that keeps things moving.  It requires less effort but more proactive planning.

If I let my team take a few steps forward then stop, or if I let them accomplish a goal and then stop and wait for the next goal, I will be in a cycle of consistently needing extra force to move them along.

The best way is to use inertia in our favor:

  • Push hard up front.
  •  Get them moving.
  • Then maintain momentum through minimal force consistently applied.

Trust me.  The proactive planning and leadership needed to maintain momentum is a lot more fun to apply than the effort needed to get things moving in the first place. 

Question:

When have you seen inertia work in your favor at work?

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