LEADERSHIP HABIT-BUILDING EXPLAINED

How leadership habit-building helps leaders unearth, evaluate and update their underlying beliefs to achieve lasting behavior change

JUNE 8, 2022 | BRENDA VAN CAMP

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In this 3-part blog series, “Leadership habit-building explained,” we explore and discuss the design practices, tools, and strategies that leadership habit-building uses to help leaders turn what they learn into lasting new leadership habits.

Many traditional leadership programs still approach leadership development as a simple case of behavior modification: Participants are told how they should behave and instructed on how to “do” the new behavior.

However, our behavior tends to be driven by our beliefs: We act in specific ways because of the beliefs we hold about ourselves, about others, or about how things are supposed to be done, or about what is expected of us, etc.

So, you can consciously try to adopt a new way of behaving and override your old way of behaving. But that will only work as long as you intentionally focus on making that change. The moment you let your guard down, your subconscious takes over and starts operating based on your underlying beliefs – i.e., You’ll fall back into your old habits.

For example, imagine a leadership program that trains participants, among many other things, in the art of active listening. The skills required to practice active listening are easily learned. However, some participating leaders may believe that talking less and listening more may make them look weak. Others may be afraid to lean into listening because of what might get thrown their way. So a few days after attending the training, when their focus on adopting this new behavior weakens, participants will most likely revert to their old habit of talking more and listening less.

However, leadership development programs can overcome this issue and achieve lasting behavior change by using leadership habit-building tools to help participants unearth, evaluate and update their underlying beliefs.

“The moment you let your guard down, your subconscious takes over and starts operating based on your underlying beliefs – i.e., You’ll fall back into your old habits.”

Table of Contents

Helping leaders discover & embrace the unvarnished truth about problematic leadership behaviors

Unearthing the beliefs that underpin problematic leadership behavior is one of the first steps in any leadership habit-building program. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet articulating one’s underlying beliefs is challenging. It’s a bit like the fish who is unaware he is swimming in water: we are mostly unaware of the beliefs that drive our behavior. Our ideas about what is true and how the world works tend to be deeply ingrained. They are the result of the influences of our family, friends, the social norms of our community, and our experiences.

Leadership habit-building leverages two fundamental principles to help participants discover their underlying beliefs:

  1. A commitment to the truth
  2. Contextualization

A commitment to the truth is one of the three elements that Peter M. Senge, senior lecturer at MIT and renowned author of the book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization,” identifies as essential to a person’s capacity to learn and change. In Senge’s words, a commitment to the truth is ‘a relentless willingness to root out the ways we deceive ourselves from seeing what truly is.’ In other words, for a person to learn and achieve lasting change, they need to practice radical self-knowledge to realistically assess their existing behaviors and beliefs, whether positive or negative.

However, the tricky thing is that most people falsely believe that they’re highly self-aware. Most of us try to ignore our flaws and weaknesses in everyday life. Our ego gets in the way and stops us from being brutally honest with ourselves about how we behave and what we think and believe because it’s incompatible with the nice conscious image we have of ourselves.

Traditional leadership programs tend to try and force self-awareness on participants by conducting a 360 assessment for each participant at the outset of the program. Unfortunately, very few are ever able to genuinely accept the results of these assessments as truth. Instead, participants spend their time rationalizing any critical comment and waste their energy trying to second-guess who said what.

So how can we help participants practice such radical self-knowledge? How can we help them see their behaviors for what they are and discover and acknowledge the beliefs that drive those behaviors? In leadership habit-building, we do this through contextualization exercises that help participants connect what they have just learned with real-life examples from their own experiences as a leader.

For example, in the case of our active listening example, a contextualization exercise would guide a participant to identify various occasions when they did and didn’t practice listening and examine what beliefs caused them to behave in that way.

“Our ego gets in the way and stops us from being brutally honest with ourselves about how we behave and what we think and believe because it’s incompatible with the nice conscious image we have of ourselves.”

Igniting an inner desire to change

Having unearthed the underlying belief(s) of a problematic leadership behavior does not lead automatically to change. Research by Harvard Professor Dr. John P. Kotter showed that analyzing and thinking that a behavior change is needed wouldn’t make a person decide to change their habits.

Just think about it: You do many things you know aren’t good for you in the long term, but that still isn’t enough to make you change.

Instead, professor Kotter found that for people to be motivated enough to pursue change, they first need to see and feel that need to change. They need to see and feel the negative consequences of what would happen if they don’t change and see and feel the positive impact if they do.

Leadership habit-building, therefore, uses a combination of powerful, structured visualization tools to help participants see and feel the need for change. The almost visceral reactions that such tools can conjure are highly effective in motivating leaders to commit to change. It also frequently has the added benefit of igniting a true sense of urgency to pursue the change.

“Professor Kotter found that for people to be motivated enough to pursue change, they first need to see and feel that need to change.”

In conclusion

Leadership habit-building moves beyond merely teaching leaders how they should act, which at best leads to momentary behavior modification. Instead, leadership habit-building deeply engages leaders to discover and understand what drives their existing suboptimal leadership behaviors and ignites a desire and willingness to change from within. Combined, the odds of achieving lasting behavior change are greatly enhanced.
“Leadership habit-building deeply engages leaders to discover and understand what drives their existing suboptimal leadership behaviors and ignites a desire and willingness to change from within.”

To learn how to use leadership habit-building tools and strategies to turbo-charge the effectiveness of your leadership development programs, check out our next Leadership Habit-Building Masterclass for L&D leaders.

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