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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 20, 2018

Much of our leadership behaviour is driven by habits. In this episode we explore helpful and harmful leadership habits, as well as how to identify existing habits and build new ones.


Welcome to episode one of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week I provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges.

Today we’re going to explore leadership habits - the routines and disciplines we all have that either help or hinder our leadership impact.

The good news is that leadership is a set of skills and behaviours that we can all learn and develop. Leadership is what we do every day that helps us to achieve results through people. And psychology has taught us a lot about how to change our behaviours and to develop new skills.

So first, a question - Did you brush your teeth this morning? Well of course you did. In fact you’re extremely confident that you brushed your teeth this morning. But you may not remember doing it. 

So did you actually choose to brush your teeth this morning? That’s an interesting question. Clearly, given you did brush your teeth, you must have decided on some level to do it. But it most likely wasn’t a conscious decision. 

It’s not like you walked into the bathroom this morning and said “hmmm - brushing my teeth - do I really want to do that today? Can I spare the two minutes? Is it the best use of my time?”.

You didn’t need to consciously choose to brush your teeth this morning because it is a healthy and positive habit for you. In fact, a positive habit like this frees up some conscious attention for you to think about other priorities.

However it wasn’t always a habit - in fact, it probably took someone years to convince you to brush your teeth daily.

Habits take effort to form, but once they are formed they also take effort to change. Recent research demonstrated that people took between 20 to over 250 days to build a new habit - in fact some people even left the experiment after a year having not built a habit.

Chances are that, like me and everyone else on this planet, you also have some unhealthy and negative habits. 

I recently met someone on a leadership program who let me know that she was struggling with anxiety. It was effecting her work and her overall wellbeing, and she was clearly keen to address the issue. The next morning of the program I couldn’t help but notice as the same person walked in carrying a large, double-shot coffee and an equally large can of Red Bull - it was part of her morning ritual and routine. And it was also a negative habit. Taking close to the daily recommended amount of caffeine in one hit would induce anxiety in most people. She just didn’t connect the non-conscious habit of purchasing the same drinks every morning, with the anxiety those drinks helped to produce half an hour later. Building her awareness of that connection helped her to challenge and change that habit. But it took feedback to highlight the habit.

In the same way, we can have healthy and unhealthy leadership habits that we can identify through feedback and by paying attention to how we’re spending our time.

Some unhealthy leadership habits that I’ve seen, include:

  • Starting the day responding emails - performing those kinds of tasks that require little attention at the point when we have the most focus and energy
  • Another one is not taking breaks, or eating lunch at our desk - staying glued to our desks as our attention and productivity decline
  • The second shift is another unhealthy leadership habit - going home to eat dinner after a long day, then firing up the laptop for another few hours of work every night - it impacts negatively on our productivity and just wears us out

You could look at replacing unhealthy habits with healthy leadership habits, like:

  • Setting aside an hour each day, uninterrupted, to get one key thing done
  • Or it might be going outside for a quick walk every 90 minutes to refresh and re-energise and to rebuild our focus
  • You might want to leave mindless work like emails and meetings to that mid-afternoon slump we all go through around 2pm
  • Or getting into the habit of just saying ‘thank you’ when someone pays you a compliment - it makes them feel better, and it makes you feel better as well

The key to building new habits is to experiment. Try something new out - if it doesn’t work, don’t just revert back but try something else new.

You will also want to measure your results. Rate your productivity, focus, happiness - whatever you can track that can give you a sense of the impact of the new habit, and encourage you to keep going. 

This week - can I encourage you to become aware of your habits. You might want to set an alarm each hour - something that will prompt you to look back over that previous 60 minutes and diarise how you’re spending your time.

And when you’ve identified habits you want to change, or new habits you want to develop - Involve others. Their feedback and encouragement will make all the difference.

I trust you’ve found this episode on leadership habits helpful. I look forward to hearing how you go, and to sharing another leadership today podcast with you next week.