Thursday, April 23, 2009

How Highly Successful Leaders Develop Habits

Seagullj0201345 (2) The flock of squatting seagulls seemed increasingly agitated at the prospect of having their early morning, beach breakfast interrupted by my power walk. As I marched within ten yards, they all took flight, squawking… except Goliath (not his real name). Goliath’s eyes warned me to back off as he continued pecking at the scraps of food left by careless beachgoers. But I kept my stride, puffed out my chest, and stared back, reminding him that I was king of this beach. When I came with a few yards, this lion of the beach protested loudly and finally took flight. That's when I thought about the critical role habits play in leaders’ efforts to take flight.

"First we make our habits, then they make us," wrote the English poet John Dryden. How much of your day is spent operating according to habits? Do you have unconscious routines as you get ready every morning, drive to work, interact with colleagues, prepare your paperwork, or conduct meetings? Of course, everyone has habits. However, the real question is, do your habits have YOU?

Many of our habits begin as newly learned skills that evolve over the years into unconscious routines (i.e., habits). Moreover, many of these habits serve us well, allowing us to focus on important tasks and relegating the unimportant to the background of our minds. But have you thought about how to create new habits consciously in order to become a better leader? That’s what got me thinking about the seagulls and the big one I named Goliath. Goliath had created a habit of being the last to take flight. How much extra food do you think Goliath has eaten because he created a habit of staying longer than others?

The analogy may not be perfect; nevertheless, the point is that highly successful leaders discipline themselves to turn daily actions into life-long habits. They know that knowledge is not power, only applied knowledge is power.

Instead of just letting your habits dictate your behaviors, put desired habits to work for you. I discovered long ago that the secret to implementing new habits into everyday life is to link the new skill you want to become a habit to something you are already doing. In other words, connect what you want to become a habit to an existing habit. Figure 9.2 expresses this concept in a simple, yet powerful equation.

A Formula to Create Habits

Old Habit + New Skill = New Habit

I recently coached a senior executive to share a little more of his inner life with his team in order to improve his empowering style (via integrity). I told him to write the words “share self” at the top of his notepad because he had a habit of taking notes during meetings, telephone conversations, and one-on-one interactions. Every time he looked down to write in his notepad (his old habit), he was reminded to consider, if appropriate, sharing something personal by the words “share self” (new skill). This prompted him to practice the new skill. After several weeks, he told me that opening up a little more to his team was becoming a habit. He had combined an existing habit (taking notes during conversations) with the new leadership skill (sharing self) to implement the new habit of sharing his inner life.

This concept is as old as tying a string around your finger. The only question is, how will you use this old principle to help you practice the new skills you need to achieve your goals? Listed below are several examples of how to combine old habits with new skills. Adapt them to create the habits for those critical skills you need to master to reach your goals.

1. Index cards. Write a skill on a 3 x 5 index card. Put the card in your pocket. Whenever you put your hand in your pocket, read the card. You may also want to place a check mark on the card every time you practice the skill.

2. Pocket change. Put seven coins in the right pocket of your slacks. Every time you put your hand in your right pocket, move one coin from the right pocket to the left pocket and remind yourself to practice your new skill. Let the coins be a metaphor about the importance of making small change over time. (Thanks to my friend and professional speaker Bonnie Dean for this suggestion.)

3. Watch. Program your watch to beep on the hour. Use the beep as reminder to practice the new skill.

4. Cross your fingers. Visualize yourself using your new tool as you cross your little finger (pinky) with the ring finger next to it. Visualize the new sales skill when you review your morning goals. Create the rich mental images, sounds, and feelings as you imagine yourself successfully using the new tool. When you're actually in your new environment, cross your fingers as the reminder to practice what you imagined. I’m convinced this approach was instrumental in helping me turn my questioning strategy into habit when I was in sales.

5. Mirror. Slightly tilt the rearview mirror in your car. Every time you look in the mirror, tell yourself aloud how you are applying your skill today.

6. Notepad. Write a “reminder word” at the top of the notepad you use during the day. Just as in the “sharing self” example, every time you looked down to scratch a note, you will be prompted to use your new tool.

7. Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). As you review your daily appointments in the morning, write a word or two to remind yourself to practice your new skill.

8. Computer. How can you change your screensaver or scheduling software to inspire you to practice your skill? How about placing a post-it-note on your computer?

9. Colleague. Whom can you count on to encourage you to take daily action toward your long-term goal?

10. Meetings. How can you add the new skill as an agenda item to your meetings? For example, one leader e-mailed me after our leadership training that she had added “systems thinking” as an agenda item for their meetings. She said it was helping her and her team create the habit of thinking systemically about the issues they were addressing.

We operate according to habits that have evolved over many years. Yet few leaders use the power of habits to help them achieve difficult goals. I urge you to use the method described here to build the belief in your plan to reach your destination. As you do so, you will master the one habit of huge seagulls and high-flying leaders – the habit of making habits.

Keep eXpanding,



George said...

I really want to work on my leadership skills and this might really help. Thank you for posting this.

Dave Jensen, Leadership Expert said...

Hi George,

That's great! Let me know how it goes, OK?

Also, most leaders want (and need) objective feedback in order to focus on the most important skills.

So, you might want to read an article I wrote about leadership feedback and assessments.

I'm biased, but I think my knew XLM 360 assessment is a great way to work on your leadership skills:

Thanks for writing,