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Creatures of Habit

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I’m not sure that there is one dominant leadership trait that rises above all others in the litany of leadership traits that surround us. It seems all too easy to adopt a single trait as the most influential and you’ll be leading with the best of them. The one constant element is that leadership is about developing your skills with the right balance of knowledge to compliment your skill set. The art of leadership really is about doing, it’s about the way in which you behave, interact, listen, guide, support and make decisions. Essentially it’s a set of behaviours. Identifying what works for you in your context and repeating it to form the habits that work best for you is where the power lies. What are the skills you need to lead in your context? How do you develop those? How do you know they are working? Once identified it’s a matter of repeatedly using them until this behaviour becomes automatic.

A small change or adjustment may make a significant difference to not only your success but to the entire culture of your organisation

There’s plenty of research and leadership development courses available that identify the behaviours required to successfully lead. Whether they align with your philosophy, values or beliefs is ultimately up to you. What the self help guides don’t necessarily articulate is that these behaviours are only successful if they are sustained.  If it was as simple as attending a course, reading a book or watching a lecture we’d all be leadership experts. How often have we returned from a professional development opportunity enthused and brimming with confidence about the new method, strategy or technique only to implement them for a period of time before we revert back to what we know and what is comfortable. For these new methods to stick they have to become automatic elements of your repertoire.

When you got up this morning did you have to think about how you poured your coffee, ate your breakfast or brushed your teeth? For most of us these things happen automatically without a great deal of thought. We’ve performed these tasks so often that they have become automatic aspects of our daily life that require little thought or effort to complete. In fact our brains actually require these automatic habits to conserve energy to allow us to complete the  more complex tasks in our day. Have you ever had one of those occasions when you were driving to a particular destination only to realise you were heading somewhere else just purely out of habit. According to a study conducted by Duke University about 40% of the decisions we make each day are based on habitual routines not conscious thought. Habits are ingrained and difficult to break. 

Understanding how habits are formed is essential for reinforcing current habits or developing new ones. It seems easy, set a goal, establish a routine and follow it through with positive reinforcement and constructive conversation. Unfortunately it’s never that easy.  Passion and enthusiasm only lasts so long. The reality is it is much harder than that. Good or bad, habits are just a response to some form of cue. To develop a habit you need to do two things: break the old and develop the new. Repetition of the desired behaviour and practice really are the only way.  Habits form when we deliberately repeat the behaviour in the same environment. By doing this we use environmental cues to help solidify the behaviours. Identifying what triggers the habit (the cue) and making a conscious choice to replace it with an alternative is the most successful method of changing a habit. Replacing the old with the new so we stop doing one thing and start doing another. 

In leadership positions though it can be challenging to develop new habits. When we start to lead a new team we observe how things operate, how people interact, how the work streams get managed and how we measure success. From these observations we then start to put our own influence on them to try to improve, enhance or solidify the traits that we believe are successful and align with our vision for the team. How do we do this? We develop norms, rituals, observable behaviours that we want to see to allow the team to enhance what they do. We attempt to develop new habits within our teams. We often face resistance and a push to maintain the status quo especially if the new habits are difficult to maintain. This is the work of developing culture and can take time. What also takes time but will have just as a dramatic impact is developing your own leadership habits. Developing good habits in your own leadership plays a significant part in your overall effectiveness and as an extension the success of your organisation. The only proven method that I know  to become a better leader is to refine  your leadership skills through systematic and sustained practice. Consistent and persistent practice turns everyday behaviours into automatic habits. We want our successful leadership behaviours to become habitual parts of how we lead. Excellence in leadership is not a one off win, it’s not that one great idea or initiative it’s a sustained pattern of behaviour that drives your organisation to achieve.  

To do this, it would be worth asking those you lead to complete some form of survey that identities the leadership behaviours that you display. There are a variety of them out there. You’ll need some courage to do this because there may be some insights revealed that have been blind spots for you because they are habits you may not realise you have. The results will indicate which ones are positive and which ones you need to work on. From here you can start to look deeper into the results to try to identify patterns or triggers that lead you to behave in a particular manner at certain times. It’s always good practice to discuss the results and your own insights with a trusted colleague who can serve as a critical friend by asking probing questions. Once you have some insights it’s good practice to write down your daily routine and try to map out the behaviours you default to in each situation. Which ones are the positives, which are the ones for refinement and what can you discard. Those habits you need to let go of can be the most challenging  to work on. Look for little behaviours that you do without consciously thinking about them; these are the ones that you should work on first. I find having some form of physical reminder available as a trigger can assist here. I have a little red tag on the top page of my diary each day that reminds me to ask more questions and not try to solve the problem too quickly. Small physical cues can help to keep you on track and remind you of the habit you are trying to break. 

Like most things we like to get a few quick wins on the board. Unfortunately with habits they are generally so ingrained that it takes time to cement the change you are trying to see. You are going to have to be motivated and be prepared for the long haul. There may be no quick wins here and unfortunately this can drain motivation levels and leave you feeling like you are spending too long in the learning pit. This is where your EQ will have to kick in and you’ll have to draw on your resilience, grit and apply a healthy sense of optimism. One way to assist here is to look for tiny changes that can be made rather than a large scale overhaul. It may be that you keep the same routine and consciously substitute one small behaviour for another. You’ll have to be mindful of the old habits that are still firmly in place trying to influence your behaviour. This is where a critical friend can offer assistance. Sharing what you are trying to achieve with a trusted colleague is a good way to get an independent read on how you are travelling towards developing a new habit.

Whilst leadership can be heavily influenced by the leader’s personality and ability to connect with people it is ultimately their behaviour that makes or breaks them. It’s the leader’s ability to continually perform and build a culture that people want to be part of that sets them apart from the pack. The habits we display can be powerful predictors of our success. It’s worth taking time to really examine how you go about your day to identify the habitual routines and decision making processes you’ve established to see what impact they are having on your leadership. As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit. You never know a small change or adjustment may make a significant difference to not only your success but to the entire culture of your organisation. 

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