We all know that when you want to get better at something, you have to practice – whether it’s sports, music, dance or….leadership. To improve our leadership, we often read books, attend seminars, observe famous leaders, even look at our bosses and swear we will never be like them. In other words, periodic, short bursts of attention focused on self‐improvement. I also call them one‐offs or ‘going to the mountain’. Inspirational moments, perhaps, but not sustainable learning if that’s the whole of it. To make lasting improvements in our leadership, we need to change our habits, and habits are formed through practice. Otherwise, our leadership goes on autopilot.
Why You Need a Discipline of Leadership Practice
For better or worse, we are creatures of habit. And habits are powerful. They shape our thoughts, our emotions, and the way we show up. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg asserts that ‘when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.’
Our leadership, then, is a collection of our habits. And most habits, whether productive or unproductive, are unconscious. Which means our leadership can also be fairly unconscious. It’s one of the reasons we are so often unaware of our unproductive leadership habits and the impact of those behaviors on those we lead.
What is a Discipline of Leadership Practice?
Identify a new behavior, something to replace the behavior you want to change, which you then choose to practice consciously and deliberately every day, over time. Even when you don’t want to. Until it becomes your new normal.
I’ve discovered that many of my clients initially find it challenging to create and follow a discipline of leadership practice. Yet, I can tell you with certainty that my most successful coaching clients are the ones who put new behaviors – no matter how unfamiliar or uncomfortable at first – into practice.
Those small steps in changing your behavior, when executed consistently over time, with conscious intention, create big shifts!
How to Start a Practice
Self‐Awareness Audit Questions
- What am I thinking?
- What am I feeling?
- Where am I feeling it in my body?
- What do I want now?
- How am I getting in my own way?
- What do I need to do differently now?
When working with my clients, I first help them identify something they’re doing as a leader that they want, and often need, to change. For example, many leaders have difficulty identifying their feelings, which is an essential first step to managing them. This isn’t a big secret — a recent study demonstrated that only 36% of leaders could accurately identify an emotion when asked. Here are tips I offer my clients as they develop their practice:
Keep it Simple, Start Small. Limit your leadership practice to two or three behaviors and no more so that they are simple, easy to remember, and easy to put into action. As you master them and they become new habits, you can then add a few more new practices. For example, to better understand your emotions and manage them, practice a Self‐Awareness Audit [see sidebar]. Use this audit when you feel yourself getting upset, frustrated, or your triggers get activated. Wait five seconds till you get an answer to each question.
Have Fun. Find a leadership practice you love to do that brings you energy and joy and then make sure you practice it every day. I have a set of angel cards I keep in a box my daughter hand‐painted for me when she was seven years old. Each card has only one word on it. I pull a card the first thing in the morning. I often use these cards with groups, whether it’s a staff meeting or a leadership offsite, to help ground and set the intention for the group.
Keep at it! No matter how much we may want to fix something, fast, expediency is rarely the answer to changing behavior. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in anything. This may be true; however, I’ve seen leaders make significant progress after 30 days.
With practice, we can develop new leadership habits that rewire patterns that no longer serve us. What is a practice you will pick today?