While it’s certainly true that some people are born to be leaders and “just have” the skills needed for leadership success, it’s much more common that the people you consider to be great leaders have developed into such over time by mastering the skills needed for success.
Much of this skill mastery involves developing good leadership habits from the get-go, but it also involves becoming aware of unproductive habits, and the learning methods to reverse them (or manage them).
The tips below can apply to both scenarios. However, it’s important to point out that it tends to be easier for brand new leaders to develop good leadership habits.
What new leaders don’t have is a time-tested affinity for doing things or approaching situations in a particular way. Their habits haven’t yet become ingrained. That being the case, they don’t have as many bad habits to undo as leaders who have been so for many years in the same organization.
The saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” may come to mind, but note that you absolutely can teach an experienced leader to develop good leadership habits—so long as you set up a system that’s conducive to enabling behavior change.
The idea of setting up a system to help yourself develop new habits is from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, which I’ll refer to more later in this blog.
Why are old habits so hard to break?
Why old habits are hard to reverse is a topic for another blog post, but the short answer is this (and it’s based on science): People get used to doing the same thing, the same way. This is how habits are formed, as regularly repeated behaviors are learned through reinforcement and repetition. After a certain point, these behaviors (habits) require little or no thought, and essentially become automatic.
In fact, your brain craves habits because they are efficient, and allow us to complete tasks effortlessly without wasting energy or brainpower. (It’s called homeostasis.) From a brain-efficiency perspective, this is great because it allows our brains to do more each day, including all the thinking and planning we need to do to schedule our days and do our jobs.
However, in the business world, homeostasis is often recognized as the urge to maintain the status quo, reinforce the existing culture, etc. Whatever you call it, it’s not good for implementing change and paving a new, different future.
So, while it's true new leaders have an edge when it comes to developing good leadership habits—because they likely haven’t had the time to develop not-so-great-leadership habits—it’s also possible for those who have been in leadership positions for years to undo old habits and develop new and better ones that can help to transform their organizations. Before I get to tips for how you can develop new and better leadership habits (Hint: it’s all about your system!), let’s first discuss a few habits of good leaders.
What are good leadership habits?
Good leadership habits are entrenched in the core skills leaders need to be effective. Based on decades of research, DDI has determined the following core skills for successful leaders of all levels:
- Emotional intelligence
- Active and authentic listening
- Conducting purposeful conversations
- Having a growth mindset
- Being a good coach
- Building relationships
- Asking questions
Just one example of a good leadership habit that falls within many of these core skills is listening to the concerns of team members and responding with empathy.
DDI defines empathy as acknowledging others’ feelings and circumstances when they express emotion verbally or nonverbally. Empathy involves letting others know that their feelings are understood and helps them to feel that their perspective is being considered.
An empathetic leader knows how to listen actively and authentically, and ask questions where it makes sense, to better understand the feelings, concerns, and frustrations, of his or her team members, colleagues, etc. Because empathy helps to build mutual understanding, it can be helpful in diffusing conflict.
Empathy is a soft skill, which is good news, because soft skills can be learned and practiced. Thus, leaders can become more empathetic by developing good listening skills and mastering how to have successful conversations.
How to develop good leadership habits
James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is a true wealth of knowledge on all things related to habits: the science behind them, practical strategies to teach you how to master and/or reverse habits, and how tiny behavior changes can lead to remarkable results over the long-term. If you have even a slight interest in habits or you have any self-improvement goals whatsoever, I recommend this as a must-read.
As I was reading Atomic Habits, I couldn’t help but think about how good leadership habits could be developed using Clear’s recommendations. Here are a few of the hundreds of tips he offers in his book that really resonated with me.
1. Don’t expect progress to come over night.
It’s typical for people to make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and decide to discontinue their efforts. Think about eating right and exercising for two weeks, only to see that number on the scale not budge. You’ve started to develop some good habits, but you quit because you don’t see results. Clear says that in order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through what he calls The Plateau of Latent Potential.
Clear’s Plateau of Latent Potential shows how we expect our results to be quick, and linear, but the reality is that our efforts take longer than we think they should to be realized. (When your efforts don’t give you the results you think you should have by the time you think you should have them, this what Clear calls the “valley of disappointment.”)
But just because our efforts aren’t realized as quickly as we think they should, it doesn’t erase the work we’ve already accomplished. The moral of the story: be patient, put in the work, and good results will follow eventually (It just may take months or even years depending on what your end goal is, so don’t give up!). In Clear’s words, “All big things come from small beginnings.”
2. Focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you want to become.
Clear writes about how people don’t (but should) consider an identity change when trying to make a change. For example, someone with a goal of trying to become a leader shouldn’t just think, “I want to be a leader and if I take this class or get this job, then I’ll be a leader.” The focus is on the outcome and the process but not on the beliefs that drive those actions.
The key is to make a habit part of your identity, and according to Clear, “It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.”
When a habit becomes part of your identity, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain it. Shift your thinking from, “My goal is to take a course to help me with my leadership skills,” to, “My goal is to become a leader.” Focus on who you want to become, rather than what you want to achieve, and this simple shift in mindset will help you be more effective at sticking to the habits you need to adopt to be successful.
3. Understand the difference between action and motion.
Clear writes, “Motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.” I found this tip super-relatable to my job as a writer.
There are times when I have a great idea for a blog post, but I spend all my time outlining and figuring out the best way to approach my writing that I never actually get around to writing the blog post. I do feel like I’m making progress, though, which helps me think I’m moving closer to my end goal of getting the blog post written. But, in fact, I have nothing to show for my work, and perhaps the only thing I’ve learned is that I need to go back to planning or learning more about the topic I need to write about in order to successfully write the article.
Clear identifies the difference between action and motion: “Sometimes motion is useful, but it will never produce an outcome by itself. It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get the result you’re looking to achieve.”
To relate this back to leadership, let’s say you want to become an effective coach to your team. Studying how to be an effective coach and taking courses is helpful, but to really become an effective coach, you need to not only practice having those various coaching conversations (VR skill practice is a great option) but you need to jump in and start having them with your team. You might not be perfect right away, but as Clear says, “You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. You just need to get your reps in.”
Discover why Interaction Management® is the most proven leadership development system.
Carly Barry is a writer for DDI’s Marketing Communications team. When she’s not working on articles, Carly can be found chasing—her two young sons and the finish line for several local 5ks and half marathons.