Good Habits: What’s Lacking In Leadership Development

There’s something wrong with how we develop leaders. Learning what we need to do to step up our leadership, whether it’s because of a recent promotion or leading a disrupted marketplace, is helpful. But we don’t always do what we are convinced we should. Old habits get in the way.

Knowing what to do isn’t the same as doing it. Enjoying beautiful photos of food in a cookbook when you’re hungry is not the same as making those meals and satisfying your appetite. You’ve read the recipes but your stomach is still growling. What we want to do and know to do doesn’t always translate to action.

When it comes to forming new habits, we aim to behave in ways that will stick. Making behaviours automatic is what a habit is.

Employers have taken us partway there. Companies have worked for decades betting on the leadership competencies and behaviours that will lead a business to future success. They evaluate their leaders’ performance against these same behaviours. But it often stops there because, although people know what’s expected of them, what’s still elusive is how to continuously make the change.

As humans, we are naturally inconsistent and persistently habitual. You may have weekly Monday morning meetings with the team or run a meeting in a routine way. This can be useful if it’s valuable, but it can also be maddening to be consistent when you want to form a new habit.

I’ve spent years learning how to form habits with deliberation, and I’m learning to see myself as I am. I’ve noted where I went off the tracks and where I’ve thrived, revising what I know about myself as I go. That’s how you can determine your profile as a deliberate habit creator.

A few important things you’ll need to learn about yourself to master the game of habit building include how you motivate yourself, your strategies to succeed, your strategies for self-sabotage and the strengths and limits of your own willpower.

The Confusion About Habits

Like others, I first read about habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People. First published in 1989, it was a bestseller and still has a hold on people’s imaginations. Covey’s habits were habits of the mind, such as being proactive and seeking to understand and be understood.

Today, we live in an age where research in brain science and neurology and a strong interest in healthy lifestyles have captured our attention, and it’s advanced our understanding of the mechanics of habit creation. Furthermore, knowledge about the self-limiting behaviours that hold leaders back from their full effectiveness makes turning our attention to changing our habits very appealing.

Although we are told in books and movies how successful people got to where they are so we can do the same, copying their formula doesn’t work. One size doesn’t fit all. We aren’t motivated in the same ways, nor do we all enjoy the same rewards. So, here are a few vital keys to make you the potter of your own clay:

1. Focus on smart design, not just willpower.

Habits that sync up with your goals don’t get formed without a deliberate strategy. I guarantee that leaning into your willpower as your single strategy won’t get you there. When starting out, we aren’t as clear about our drivers or even when we can lean into our willpower, so it’s key to be patient with yourself as you learn what works for you. Be sure to write down any information or insights about yourself, as you will be building your own habit profile.

2. Shape your environment by creating cues. 

A cue is the start of the design. It sparks the sequence of actions you will follow. So many people know they need to expand their internal networks but don’t “find the time” to do it. Counting on your memory as a reminder doesn’t help. You need reliable cues.

At 12:30 p.m. each day, a leader I coach grabs her lunch in the company cafeteria where she starts a minimum of one conversation with someone she doesn’t know. This is a big win, especially because she dropped her long-standing habit of eating a quick lunch at her desk.

3. Get it out of your head and into the world.

Too many executives I’ve known start habit building with an intention they keep locked up in their head. It may work for a day or even a week, but then it disappears. The secret is to get it out into the world.

For example, a hospital foundation CEO wanted to resist getting distracted from her daily priorities. So, she began creating a daily list first thing every morning and sharing it with her executive assistant. She sorts the urgent from the important and refers to prepared questions she habitually goes to when she’s considering deviating from the list.

4. Determine whether you need to make it social. 

Are you someone who will forge a new habit on your own, or would you prefer it to be social? When an accounting firm partner I know wasn’t taking care of her health, she pledged that she would walk the stairs at work. And then she didn’t.

Although she saw herself as autonomous, she didn’t expect that making this activity a social one with a buddy was necessary. If you’re in a similar boat, consider finding a habit buddy who is equally committed to their goal.

When we change our habits, we take ownership of our behaviours in visible ways. Learning to turn leadership behaviours into habits is what’s missing in leadership development.

A version of this article was published by Forbes here. Thank you for the image You X Ventures.

‘How Women Rise’ in the Age of #TimesUp

A group of 25 of us sat around tables at a recent professional development workshop and shared what we considered to be our major strengths. I was taken by the insight of a woman early in her career sitting beside me who said she had a natural talent for making things easy for other people. She went on to reveal that she was thinking through the merits of transitioning from “order taker” and “obliger” to someone who gives direction, a leader at work. I know that Sally Helgesen, the co-author of a new book ‘How Women Rise’ would say that as women, there are self-limiting habits that undermine our success that are mostly specific to us, just as there are those specific to men. The “disease to please” trap, one of the many prevalent bad habits among women described in the book, may have been at play in this case. Striving to gain favour from everyone has its advantages, however, as women continue in their career beyond the early years, exerting authority and holding people accountable becomes far more important.

When I heard about the idea for the book ‘How Women Rise’ by Sally Helgesen and her co-author Marshall Goldsmith, I was intrigued that they used the framework from Goldsmith’s earlier book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ to focus on the behaviours that get in the way of women leaders. Goldsmith’s original book is a classic. It’s a go-to resource in my coaching and leadership library and one I’ve recommended. It describes the habits of leaders at any level who mistake a strength overdone as a lot of a good thing, pridefully believing their habits are at the core of their identity. Mostly they don’t recognize that their success is in spite of their annoying habits and not because of them, which is why they persist. The original book was based on Goldsmith’s experiences with his executive coaching clients, who it turns out are mostly male, and the opportunity to look at self-limiting habits through a gender lens presented itself years later.

It’s a touchy matter that in the age of #metoo and #TimesUp this book’s focus is on changing women’s own behaviours. We are in a time of great social awareness about how women in the workplace are hired, paid and treated. Learning about what women need to do to have satisfying careers made me excited in anticipation for what they found to be gender specific behaviours, but I was also skeptical about the discovery of more expectations from women. We’ve recently experienced a major shift in how we listen to women and spotlighting the structures that block their rights and ambitions is where the Time’s Up movement is heading. I mean, how much more do we as women need to look at ourselves? A lot more, it turns out, and that may not be a bad thing either. This book isn’t naive about the obstacles that women face although its focus is to bring a gender perspective to how we lead and manage, and offers practical advice. Some of the stories are near-facsimiles of the predicaments of the women clients I have the pleasure of working with and support. The 12 bad habits that hold us back are common and I dare you to not see yourself, woman or man, in any of them! Most recognizable for many women are the central behaviours of the perfectionist trap, overvaluing expertise and putting your job before your career.

Being woke means that we are listening to many more women’s voices and drawing attention to the inequities that are unfair, discriminatory, biased and racist, such as bosses, structures, and organizational cultures. This book deserves to be a classic because the strengths overdone they describe are ubiquitous and the new positive habits they promote will improve women’s career mobility. I’m hopeful that a book with such high ambitions as this one isn’t ignored in the cultural moment we are in right now. For sure, it takes a dual focus from all of us on what is within our control such as our own behaviours, along with a critical eye on the environmental factors to end widespread employment disparities. This book addresses the former. The career of the young woman at the workshop will benefit from ‘How Women Rise’ as others will by gaining an understanding of the consequences of believing too much of a good thing, is even better. This book is for all women and those who work with them to support the behavioural changes we want to see in the workplace that will lead to realizing women’s potential. This book’s lead co-author is Sally Helgesen, a woman writing about women. The next book in what is becoming an interesting series will be by her co-author Marshall Goldsmith, writing to men about how to work with women.

The 12 bad habits common to women from ‘How Women Rise’ by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith are:

Reluctance to claim your achievements

Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contribution

Overvaluing expertise

Just building rather than building and leveraging relationships

Failing to enlist allies from day one

Putting your job before your career

The perfection trap

The disease to please


Too much (emotion, words, disclosure)


Letting your radar distract you