A flywheel is a mechanical disk used to maintain the momentum of a vehicle or machine when the energy source is not consistent. You can find them in potter’s wheels, steam engines, cars with manual transmission, and in the heart of any organization you lead.
When I was in 4th grade, I won 1st place at my elementary school in the math game, “24.”
I went on to the district competition and won. Then I went to the regional competition, where I met kids from other elementary schools in the area who were just as good as I was, if not better.
It was a shock to my system because, until then, I hadn’t been outside the bubble of my hometown. But I pushed past those thoughts, and played well enough to earn a spot in the state competition. I was well on my way to conquering the world.
But all along the way, I felt out of place—I never quite fit in.
As I made my way to states, my competition became more sophisticated, and less relatable. Champions of their respective schools, districts, and regions, these kids all seemed like sweater-wearing, buttoned-up, preppy kids from private schools. And there I was: a poor, t-shirt-wearing kid from the Philly suburbs, playing against some of the most talented mathematical minds in the state of Pennsylvania…and winning.
In retrospect, I had unconsciously built an internal flywheel. Instead of relying on my talent and willpower alone, I was driven by mechanisms that could sustain my momentum even when I was lacking it. It was strong enough to overcome my self-doubt, lack of resources, and anything else that would normally have slowed me down.
How to build your flywheel
My own personal flywheel was what kept me going beyond my expectations, and beyond the expectations of my friends, family, teachers, and opponents. But an internal flywheel is not something innate. It must be constructed over time, with the help of other people, in four distinct parts:
- Risk: You must first take a risk by pushing the gas pedal yourself. Without an initial push, there is no energy for the flywheel to sustain. In my case, I used to steal higher-level math workbooks from of my 3rd grade teacher’s shelf and do them at home on my spare time. I was following my excitement, and it eventually turned into a skill that would open up new doors for me.
- Opportunity: Using the math skills that I’d been honing for a year, I discovered a math game called “24,” and began playing with friends. It was a great way to apply everything I was practicing, and further increase my forward momentum.
- Belief: This is the most critical part. A 4th grade math teacher noticed how well I was doing with the game, and encouraged me to play in the school tournament. At each level, each success, each turning point, he was there to support me, answer my questions, and instill belief in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
- Obsession: I took his encouragement, and used it to push even further. I practiced “24” all the time. It almost became an obsession, and it took me all the way to the state tournament.
Applying your flywheel to an organization
My personal flywheel from my childhood soon became a framework for my leadership as an adult. It became more than a personal tool. It became more than in individual tool. Using these four key components—risk, opportunity, belief, and obsession—a leader can build an organizational flywheel that can literally and unmistakably transform someone’s life, or that of an entire group.
By encouraging risk, by pushing your people to do something beyond what they are capable of, you are pushing the gas pedal for them. You are putting them into motion.
Now that you have them in motion, feed that momentum with opportunity. Trust them with larger responsibilities and tasks. Allow them to discover pathways to apply their newly found momentum.
Once they have taken the opportunities you’ve presented, be realistic with them, critique them when necessary, but encourage them along the way. Tell them the important words anyone can ever hear from someone they follow: “I believe in you.”
Finally, sit back and allow them to work, excel, and slowly build a healthy obsession with success.
Do this with each of your subordinates, and you will have built a complete organizational flywheel. There is no need to micromanage with this method. There is no need to keep pushing the gas pedal more than necessary. The flywheel, once put into motion, will do all the work to maintain and reinforce their momentum.
If you ever need a push, if you need to give someone else a push, or if you want to build positive and lasting momentum in your organization, simply do what I did as a 4th grader:
Find those who believe in you (or be that person to believe in someone else.)
Cultivate a healthy obsession.
Build an organizational flywheel. It will carry you and your organization farther than you can imagine.
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