Leadership Habits Are The Building Blocks Of Leadership

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 8 min read

For the past several years, I’ve been very interested in the concept of behavior change. Changing your daily habits will alter your week, which alters your month, which alters your year, which alters your life. Big accomplishments are the sum of your small accomplishments. Your leadership habits compound to determine who you are as a leader.

Changing ones behaviors and habits can be a very difficult feat to overcome. There are a variety of approaches to this that have varying success. The one model that I’ve found a lot of success with are the principles in James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Most notably, the concepts of habit stacking, and using degrees of difficulty to increase the likelihood of changing one’s habits.

The book is a masterpiece and will, no doubt, change your life, so, I would strongly encourage you to read the entire book.

For the sake of this post, here’s the short summary of these points.

Habit Stacking is where you add a new habit to an existing habit. As an example, I practice Mandarin on Duolingo with my morning coffee everyday. I have a habit of drinking coffee in the morning, and I simply used that as a trigger to engage my new habit. Over the last 101 days, I’ve only missed 3-4 days of Mandarin practice.

Leadership Habits and Habit Stacking with Coffee. Image: Cup of coffee on white ceramic saucer

Using degrees of difficulty rests on a simple premise: if you make something easy and obvious to do, you’re more likely to do it than if it is difficult and requires extra effort. So, a method of making or breaking habits is to use this principle to your advantage.

person wearing orange and gray Nike shoes walking on gray concrete stairs

As a simple example, if you want to create a habit of working out in the morning: put your workout clothes on a chair in front of the bathroom door and place a water bottle next to it. If you’re using weights, make sure they are already in the area where you plan to workout.

white cigarette stick on white wall

As another example. if you wanted to break the habit of smoking, you could lock your cigarettes inside of a box and put it inside of a combination lock safe. You could then ask your partner, roommate, or friend to hold onto the key and be the keeper of the combination.

This way, anytime you want a cigarette, you’d have to go through many hurdles to get there including asking the person who knows your intention to quit for permission to take a step backward.

Lovable Leadership

As I see it, Leadership is more about shaping the culture of your team than it is handing down instructions. I believe it is a leader’s job to do precisely three things:

1. Create an environment of care.

Care about your people, care about the work, create a space for the team to care about each other.

2. Create an environment of Trust

Trust is the glue that binds strong teams together. As a leader, you must be able to trust your team, the team must trust you, and the team must trust each other.

3. Ensure Safe-Travels

There are two parts to this: setting a destination and ensuring safety on the way there. A leader must set goals and lead the team toward those goals. However, people must feel safe in that environment, or they will not be able to bring their best selves to the mission.

Habits & Leadership

Building good habits is not just about your health and fitness. You can leverage the power of habits in every area of your life, including in your role as a leader.

Because leadership is a practice, rather than a title, leadership habits are an ideal place to focus if you want to improve the quality of your leadership.

Last week, I published a post called Five-Point Leadership in which I talk about the situations where leaders show up.

  1. How you show up
  2. How you set the tone, and highlight the goal.
  3. How you communicate
  4. How you run meetings/gatherings
  5. How you manage conflict

For a full explanation on these, read the post.

Each of these moments is an opportunity to build great leadership habits. As a leader, the habits that you display are observed and often modeled by your team.

Suggested Leadership Habits

The following are some suggested habits to build into your routine that will improve your standing as a leader on your team.

1. Connection and Coffee

The best things to habit stack are things you do every single day. That is why, if you’re like me, and drink coffee every morning, consider using that as an ideal place to habit stack.

For instance, every morning after you take your first sip of coffee, use it as an opportunity to check in with a different team member everyday. Make the conversation light, not heavy. Make it meaningful. Use it as an opportunity to build trust, and express that you care about them.

2. Think about how you “walk into the office”

How are you showing up everyday? Whether it’s a physical office or a virtual space, how are you shaping the first interactions of the day? Are you complimenting someone or walking in with your head down in your own world? Are you already in the zone, or do you ease into the day?

My suggestion is that you use that first arrival point as an opportunity to create a new habit that reinforces the behaviors you’d want modeled, and do the things that help bring the team closer together.

For instance, what if every single day that you came in, you started by authentically and personally acknowledging someone for work that they’d done?

3. Who’s running this meeting?

How are you starting meetings? When the meeting officially starts, do you take over, or do you yield the floor? Are you giving others the opportunity to speak or bulldozing? When someone offers an idea how do you respond? Are you always calling on the same people?

Try starting meetings now and again by using it as a team building experience. Give people the opportunity to share something they’d overcome recently.

Do you have any people on your team that you’ve lost faith in and do you think that bias might be coming through?

Try digging into the person who you’ve lost faith in and see them as a challenge rather than an obstacle. Give them even more support, work with them even more.

4. What are you really trying to say?

Does your team really know your intentions? Do you take the time to explain the purpose of different projects?

What if before adjourning a stand-up meeting, you actually asked people if they understood? What if you made sure? What if you did that and didn’t make a single person feel bad if they weren’t clear?

When there’s a disagreement, are you displaying the patience to ensure that the resolution brings the team closer together rather than further apart?

What if before you walked into a review or disciplinary meeting, you paused, and thought about how to use it as an opportunity to create feelings of alignment rather than fear? What if before you launched into the review, you explained your intentions and goals so that your feedback is contextualized in a vision for the future?

Abundant Opportunities to Build Leadership Habits

Look at things that happen repeatedly, and start to think about how you might change one thing in each of those settings. Stack a new habit on an existing scenario or habit.

If you want to change your behavior, do something to make it easy and obvious. Put it on your calendar. Carry and index card. Create a notification on your phone. Do something to remind yourself that you wish to change a behavior.

If you want to break a bad habit, bring in a partner to help you. In fact, enroll the entire team in the process. What better way to build trust than to show people the bad habits you’re trying to break. Create scenarios where it’s harder for you to display the bad habits.

The Journey of 1,000 Miles…

gray concrete road between brown and green leaf trees at daytime

This will not happen overnight. The key is to alter your behavior bit by bit, and over time. Start with the highest priority behaviors to start or stop. Get into new habits until you no longer need to think about it. You are a work in progress and you effectiveness as a leader is the product of a never-ending journey.

So, what new habit will you take on? Put it in the comments.

Now that the first draft of my book “The Lovable Leader” is in the editing process, I have a flood of thoughts about leadership that didn’t make it into the first draft. Since the editing process takes some time, I thought it would make sense to use my blog to test out a few concepts such as leadership habits. Some things may make it into the book, others may just be complimentary concepts.

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