Who buys bars of soap anymore?
As I reflect on this question, I am reminded of the time my mom taught me a valuable lesson by washing my mouth out with soap. Certainly, Baby Booomers and Gen X’ers know what I’m talking about. For Millennials, kindly let me enlighten you.
Washing out the mouth with soap was a traditional form of physical punishment, typically employed by mothers and fathers, that consisted of placing soap inside a child’s mouth so that the child will taste it, inducing what most people consider an unpleasant experience. It was a common form of punishment in the United States and United Kingdom from the late 19th century through the 1970’s. It was most often used as a response to profanity, lying, biting, tobacco use or verbal disrespect. It functioned both as a symbolic “cleansing” following the infraction, as well as acting as a deterrent due to the foul aftertaste.
So there I was, an innocent 7-year old boy playing with his Matchbox cars in the dirt in his front yard. As my red ’57 Chevy rounded the corner and jumped the rock, I noticed a used cigarette butt laying at the base of the hedges between my yard and my neighbor’s. No one in my family smoked, but the thought never crossed my mind as to who would have discarded it. The only thing I remember is thinking smoking was cool and that I wanted to be cool.
So I picked up the butt, placed it between my pointy and middle finger on my right hand and pretended to puff on the cigarette, attempting to replicate all those cool people I had seen on TV. I was so caught up in the moment I had forgotten my mom had a clear line of sight from the kitchen window. I also forgot she was washing dishes and keeping an eye on me as I played with my Matchbox.
The next thing I remember was being snatched by my hair, her screaming “Marc David, how dare you put that filthy cigarette in your mouth? You want to smoke? I’ll teach you what happens when you smoke!”
Back then, my mom’s preferred soap was Dial, and we always had a bar on the bathroom sink. Needless to say, I can still taste that Dial in my mouth. Lesson learned.
What I realize now about my mom, that I did not appreciate then, is that she created the conditions where I chose new actions. From that point forward, my choices were still voluntary, however I saw a new landscape and new options. I still had freewill, but I she created an environment where I could make better choices.
My mom “owned” being a mom, and I am grateful that she did. My mom was a leader. She taught me, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful.”
Leaders understand choices are voluntary. They can’t make people change, but they can nurture a culture where they choose to.
We are the sum total of our habits, personally as well as organizationally. At any point in time, these habits are either working for us or against us. In fact, what worked well at one time, may not be good for us today. Which is why we must be honest, humble and vulnerable to admit when it’s time to change. And change is the correct word because you can never break a habit, you can only replace it.
The best leaders and cultures understand this and they systematize it. There is momentum and inertia working for the good of good habits. Not everything that happens is good, but all things work in concert for the good.
How does this happen? Undesired habits are replaced with with desired habits. Habits are more than just behaviors, they are a system of steps that generate an outcome. The behavior is merely one of the steps. The other two steps are the trigger and the reward. To replace a habit, you must examine all three steps.
- The trigger – you can’t control this. It’s something that happens external to you.
- The behavior – what you do in response to the trigger. These are crucial moments because they are your current routine. You can control this by interrupting your impulses at these moments with a pre-defined alternative behavior. In other words, you will replace your current behavior with the alternative behavior until it becomes your new routine.
- The reward – this is reason your brain remembers to do new behavior and repeat the routine.
As you can see, change just doesn’t happen, but you can make it happen if you replace what’s not working with something that does. This simple law applies to you as well as businesses, which are nothing more than living, breathing organisms who are comprised of us, imperfect humans.
Awareness of this is the first step. Wanting to change and learn new things is the next step. After that, you literally can “replace” your way to a meaningful life doing meaningful work.
Thank you, mom, for being such a wonderful mom and leader and for teaching me that my decisions have consequences and that I own the outcomes.
Pretending to smoke that cigarette butt didn’t make me a bad kid. It made me a good did who did something stupid. Beating myself up was not fruitful because I could learn from that experience and use it for the betterment of my future.
Thank you, mom, for creating the conditions that allowed me to “replace” my way to a meaningful life doing meaningful work.