Warning: Great Leadership Is Habit-Forming

By Matt Davis June 6, 2018
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​"Like playing the piano, leadership is more about skills than knowledge. The only way to become a better leader is to improve your leadership skills through deliberate, sustained practice, and turning these skills into everyday habits," explains organizational psychologist Martin Lanik, Ph.D., in his new book The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead in Just Minutes a Day (Amacom, 2018). Lanik, CEO of Pinsight, a global leadership development company in Denver, has experience designing and running leadership development programs for global companies.

A habit, good or bad, is simply an automatic response to a cue. Or, as Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do." Research cited by Lanik bears this out: Nearly half of our everyday behavior at work or home is not a result of deliberate choice; it is habitual and processed automatically. We are indeed creatures of habit, and by thoughtfully selecting and regularly practicing certain habits, leaders of all stripes can master the skills to lead successfully. Or, as Aristotle continued his famous quote, "Excellence is not an act, but a habit."

Why Most Leadership Development Programs Fail

"The reason why most training and leadership development programs fail is because they focus on acquisition of knowledge rather than skills and habits," Lanik writes. "The intentions are good, but the familiar methods and tools of knowledge-based instruction simply aren't effective at developing skills, which can only be done by practicing the behaviors that make up the skills you want to learn."

Leadership is more about developing skills than attaining knowledge, and Lanik has created a process to help people acquire the habits they need to lead effectively. Built on straightforward, research-based exercises that can be completed in five minutes a day, Lanik's method, the Leader Habit Formula, helps build the "muscle memory" to turn essential leadership skills into consistent behaviors.

The Leader Habit Formula

In developing the Leader Habit Formula, Lanik studied hundreds of leaders across the globe and identified 22 core skills most common among successful leaders. Half were in the arena of "getting things done," and the other half on "focusing on people."

The Leader Habit focuses on skills within six critical areas—Planning & Execution, Problem Solving & Decision Making, Leading Change, Persuasion & Influence, Growing People & Teams, and Interpersonal Skills—and provides for each skill:

  • A definition and breakdown of its specific micro-behaviors.
  • A description of why the skill is important for effective leadership and how it influences the ability to achieve common business goals and strategy.
  • A list of telltale signs that indicate whether someone would benefit from improving the skill.
  • A description of the personality traits aligned with the skill, to help identify what types of people will find the skill intrinsically rewarding.
  • Five-minute exercises to help develop skills by turning micro-behaviors into habits.

Using self-tests, Lanik shows readers how to identify their own personality traits so they can determine which skills to work on first. He also details how coaches, managers and HR professionals can help others to develop their skills using his process, with guidance for implementing this strategy in informal one-on-one and team contexts and as part of formal leadership development programs.

Deliberate, Sustained Practice

What does it mean to commit to deliberate, sustained practice to develop leadership habits? "Simply that we must plan for the days when our motivation is at its lowest level," Lanik writes.

It turns out the best way to achieve sustainability (especially on those days when you feel tired and unmotivated) is to minimize effort. The book recommends taking easy steps to build habits by making the exercises undemanding and focusing on a single skill at a time, once per day.

From an HR perspective, the Leader Habit Formula provides an unfussy action plan for those employees ready to change behavior and develop better leadership skills. Although the formula makes change easier, the author cautions readers not to assume that people will cruise through training. Instead, expect people will need support, formally or informally, throughout the process, and understand that different people will need different kinds of support at different times.

Matt Davis is manager of book publishing at SHRM.


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