Leadership One Big Thing_3x5 Leadership

I met with a friend recently who just finished reading Radical Inclusion, by GEN (Ret.) Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman. During our conversation, he anxiously claimed, “there is so much from that book that I want to start doing, I don’t even know where to start.”

I think we have all been there in some capacity. I felt the same way when I finished David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around! Personally, with all of the books, blogs, journals, and podcasts I routinely engage in, it is easy for me to get overwhelmed with the new ideas for leadership improvement and organizational development. I often feel compelled to do it all now, though I know it won’t be effective or sustainable. Even all of the 3×5 Leadership blog posts, when considered collectively, can easily send a message of “do all of this now!”

So, I want to offer a simple model of personal leader development and a strategy to focus on the most important improvements to develop as a leader. The model, below, is broken down into four steps that I recommend you follow, where each step encourages you to write out a statement or a list. You’ll end with an identified leader behavior to improve on, the purpose of it, an actionable strategy, and timeline to work in it.

Step 1: Identify Your “One Big Thing”

In terms of your personal development as a leader, think about your current limitations and things you know you struggle with and could get better at. We all likely can easily think of several things we wish we were better at. However, I challenge you to keep it to one thing. This one thing is a singular behavior that you can improve on now that will have the biggest impact on improving your leadership.

This is called your leadership One Big Thing (OBT). I encourage you to make your behavior as specific and measurable as possible. For example, it will be easier to work on improving an OBT of “read one book per month, one podcast every two weeks, and one blog or article a week all focused on leader development,” versus a vague one of “learn more about how to be a better leader.”

Physically write out the behavior on a piece of paper.

Step 2: Define Your OBT’s Purpose

Change is hard. Building a new personal habit is hard; it will require continuous commitment and discipline on your behalf. Giving meaning to why you need to improve on your OBT can begin to inspire that commitment to and the value you place on the change.

On your piece of paper, below your OBT statement, write out why you chose this OBT and why it is the most important behavior for you to get better at it. This can address purely personal motives, desires for performance improvement from your people and organization, or a combination of both. Use this step to make your OBT meaningful and inspiring.

Step 3: Create Your OBT Strategy

Identifying your OBT is rather simple; the challenging part is creating a cohesive and effective strategy to build your leadership habit and make it a natural routine for you. Below your OBT statement and your purpose statement list out 3-5 things that you will commit to in order to make your OBT a habit. Obviously, every OBT is different, as will each strategy. Here are a few helpful considerations when making your OBT strategy:

  • Routine reminders: what methods can you leverage to give you reminders in critical moments or times? Consider options like phone alarms, making the statement your smart phone lock screen, carrying a 3×5 card in your pocket throughout the day with a specific note on it.
  • Key event reminders: does your OBT involve how you interact with others? Think of ways you can keep your OBT on your mind during those interactions. For example, I write key reminders on the top of my note-taking paper during meetings, feedback sessions with others, and related events to ensure I behave in those desired ways during those planned events.
  • Accountability: can you leverage a professional peer to help you be accountable in your commitment to change? Consider enlisting a peer coach. You can also share your OBT with the people on your team and use your feedback sessions to allow them the opportunity to provide their input on how they think you are doing on your OBT. Your spouse may be a helpful source of accountability and support also; I consider my wife my #1 peer coach.
  • Daily reflective journaling: write out how you feel you did toward your OBT each day and why you think did or did not do well on it. Deliberate daily reflection can help you start to identify common friction points that are hindering your OBT progress.

Step 4: Determine Your OBT Timeline

Finally, determine a feasible timeline that you plan to fulfill your OBT and when you expect to make your OBT a natural habit. This is just like any runner’s training plan for a race – step 1 is to sign up for the race. Tying your OBT to a timeline and/or completion date attaches urgency to the behavior.

Write the date or timeline at the end of your OBT document. This can be a “no later than” date for the habit or a “within ___ weeks or months, I will…”

My Personal Example

To help others conceptualize this process, below is the statement of my current OBT that I am working on.

OBT: Coach Cadets through company decisions with questions and require them to make the decision. I am not the company commander; refrain from making decisions and prevent offering recommendations as much as possible.

Purpose: Develop Cadets’ comfort and competence with making quality organizational decisions. Encourage Cadets to take ownership of leadership decisions; help them make well-informed decisions and create effective decision-making processes.


  • Aim to ask twice as many questions as I do make statements in every interaction with a Cadet chain of command member.
  • Keep a 3×5 card in my pocket each day with “WAIT: why am I talking” on it.
  • Write “WAIT: why am I talking” and “2x questions” on the top of my notes paper for every meeting and counseling with Cadets.
  • Daily journal on how I did committing to my questions-statements ratio and write out why I feel I did well or poorly.

Timeline: Achieve a perceived-level of natural coaching leadership style by the end of the 19-1 academic semester (Dec 2018).


This is not a singular process or experience. Once you’ve made your first OBT a habit, it is time to start over and re-engage in step 1 and identify a new OBT. The ultimate goal is continuous leadership growth and development.

Finally, just imagine what your organization or team would look like if every member had an OBT and was genuinely committed to improving in that behavior. This simple process can have such incredible returns on collective performance, professionalism, and learning.

I want to ensure I give necessary credit with this “One Big Thing” concept. This idea was first introduced to me by THE Tony Burgess during a leader development training event at West Point, NY. Though I’ve expanded on the concept that he taught, Tony must receive all of the credit for introducing me to this idea of the OBT.  

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  1. Thank you for sharing this useful technique, it will certainly guide me towards a better version of myself! I was wondering though, do you have a similar set of questions to decide on which initiatives are worth implementing with regard to ‘your’ Cadets? Taking in account the change (rate) one group can cope, while still remaining effective. If it changes things for the better, shoud it be implemented no matter what?

    1. Jens, honestly this exercise is a fully individual one. I cannot generalize certain OBTs for a particular group, class, or cohort. What you may need to work on is very different from what your peer next to you may need to.

      I recommend you list out a number of the ideas you’ve recently learned about through blogs, books, education, experiences, etc. If it was something that you liked and wanted to work on, list it out. Then reflect on that list and ask “which one of these will give me the biggest return on my time and effort investment?” Select one and create the strategy. After you feel you’ve made this a pretty natural behavior, go back to your list and select the next best idea.

      You can even maintain an “OBT list” of ideas you want to work on. Keep the list in order of behavior precedence (#1 on the list is most important to work on, #2 is next, etc.). As you learn a new idea you want to work on, add it to the list, placing it where appropriate on the order of precedence. This turns into your running list of “OBT to-dos.”

      I hope that makes sense and answers your question!

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