By Aaron Griffing

 Editorial Note: This article highlights a political figure as a case study but is not offered as a supporting endorsement of a particular party, candidacy, or policy. It is strictly offered as a leadership example of the impact of disciplined habits.

What do Coast Redwood trees, Barack Obama, and the University of Alabama have in common?

At first glance, not much. However, in applying the lens of the discipline of habits, they in fact share many commonalities, ultimately demonstrating to us the impact of a commitment to disciplined habits can have on our sustained growth and success.

I recently finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits while simultaneously beginning Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. I could not help but notice some of the principles Clear shares in his book on habits were affirmed in Obama’s presidential memoirs. The two books left me with four major takeaways:

  • You must remain persistent with your habits – they take time to bare results.
  • We often experience a plateau effect before breaking through toward truly impactful improvement and results.
  • The best don’t rest – even after achieving success, continue to seek improvement.
  • Establishing and employing a productive process is more impactful than establishing and achieving a goal.

Habits Take Time to Bare Results

In an optimal environment, a Coast Redwood tree can grow to surpass 360 feet in height—over 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. It takes considerable time for the Redwood to rise to that height, only growing at a rate of approximately three feet a year. Consistent habits can result in that same slow, steady growth of the Coast Redwood. Implementation of good habits and their positive byproducts will often go unnoticed with a day-to-day assessment, but the results will make a substantial impact over time. Small habits make a big difference over the long run. John Maxwell echoes the importance of persistence when he says, “leaders develop daily, not in a day.” 

The Plateau of Latent Potential

In Atomic Habits, James Clear shares a quote from 19th & 20th century journalist, Jacob Riis, that he found hanging in the San Antonio Spurs’ locker room: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.” The quote exemplifies what Clear refers to as the Plateau of Latent Potential. One must employ persistence toward a habit long enough to break through a plateau before experiencing impactful improvement. To capture the Plateau of Latent Potential, Clear shares an analogy of a cube of ice resting on a table in a cold 26-degree room. Slowly, the room warms up from 26 to 27, to 28 degrees without noticeable change to the cube of ice. This pattern continues until the room finally reaches 32-degrees and the cube of ice finally begins to melt. Similarly, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama provided a real-world example of someone busting through the Plateau of Latent Potential.

The Best Don’t Rest

Long distinguished as a gifted orator, Barack Obama worked years to hone his ability. Habits consisting of reading, writing, and practice helped cultivate his gift for public speaking. In 2004, the practice paid off as presidential hopeful John Kerry asked Obama to present their party’s keynote address during the Democratic National Convention. Agreeing to do so, Obama delivered resoundingly as he introduced himself to the nation with a brilliant keynote speech. While many called the eventual 44th president an overnight success because of the convention, it is unfair to do so. Obama accumulated years of steadfast preparation long before that to seize the night’s opportunity. He could have easily remained content with his ability following the 2004 convention. After all, many were calling him a star. Resting on his laurels would not prove to be the case. In Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, he shares a personal reflection of his performance during the convention, identifying areas for improvement “… I can see a touch of nerves at the beginning, places where I’m too fast or too slow, my gestures slightly awkward, betraying my inexperience.” This quote shows how the former president continued to seek personal growth. He continued to master the art of public speaking, remaining dedicated to the habits that made him a prominent name in 2004. He stayed true to his process.

Pour into Process, Not the Goal

In Atomic Habits, Clear illustrates how commitment to systems and processes leads to better results than establishing goals. Earlier this year, the University of Alabama won its sixth college football national championship title under coach, Nick Saban. The annual crowning of one champion depicts how every year winners and losers share the same goal. Often, a team’s process elevates them to the highest levels of success in any field. For college football particularly, this process results in more talented rosters, better-executed plays, and stronger game-day performances. Nick Saban, regarded as one of the greatest college football coach in history, says of the importance of process, “Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.” In other words, do not focus on results. Focus on the process and the results will follow.

These lessons on the impact of habits can apply to any situation, context, or field. What we’ve explored here through Barack Obama and University of Alabama football can apply to yours and even your team’s habits.

The next time you set out to establish a new habit in support of personal or even team improvement, remember that it takes time and requires persistence. After habits finally do lead to initial victories, continue to seek improvement. Finally, make goals along the way but remain focused on the process as it is strict commitment to the process that directly leads to results.

Aaron Griffing is a Sergeant Major in the United States Army’s Field Artillery. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Aaron possesses a Bachelor of Arts in Leadership and Workforce Development from the Army’s Command and General Staff College and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. When he’s not watching Texas Rangers baseball, Aaron enjoys reading and writing.


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