Leadership—the art of changing habits

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.  Aristotle
Our daily lives are a series of habits played out through the day. How did you get up this morning?  How did you shower, eat, dress…?  Most of our daily lives are unconscious.  There is a reason for this – it’s easier for our brains when we are on autopilot.

So what’s the problem?  When we are on autopilot, chances are we aren’t leading.  Leadership involves creating a new and better future.  This takes changing habits – our own and others.

Why Is Changing Habits So Hard?

The statistics on habit change look pretty dire.  Forbes magazine recently reported that only eight percent of people fulfil their New Year’s resolutions.  Why do people fail when they start with the best of intentions?  Is it a failure of will power?  Do they lack motivation?

Even when people are told “change or die” – the scientifically studied odds are nine to one against changing.  Dr. Edward Miller, CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, says “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle.  And that’s been studied over and over again.  Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”

Changing workplace behaviour is challenging.  We work with managers who are time-pressured and frequently complain:

“I have no time to think!”

“I’m constantly interrupted by people asking questions.  Why don’t they think for themselves?”

“Meetings are a waste of time.”

Habit change is at the heart of resolving these issues.

The Brain Can Change

The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been proven inaccurate by the latest neuroscience discoveries.  Science now tells us the human brain is plastic, malleable, and changes with experience.  We can re-organise and re-structure it throughout our lifetime.

The question is how?  Why are some people successful at making change happen while most are not?

Creating A Crisis Doesn’t Work

John Kotter, the author of Leading Change, advises leaders to ‘”create urgency for change” and “create a crisis”.  We now know from neuroscience that too much urgency and crisis can generate a threat response and prevent people from changing.  Doctors who try to motivate patients with the fear of death aren’t effective.

Our experience, from working with thousands of leaders, is that changing habits requires creating a goal and consciously designing a new habit to replace the old.

1.   Create a goal – make it positive and attractive

Achieving a goal, and changing a habit, starts with reframing change.  We need to move away from the language of urgency, crises and threats.  Instead, create a goal and make it attractive.  For our time-pressured manager, this might be:

“I need leadership headroom – space to reflect, think, and imagine what’s possible.”

Next, articulate the benefits of realising this goal for you and for others.

“I’ll feel calmer, more focused and inspired.  Others will be more engaged and have a clearer sense of direction.”

2.   Design new habits – create ‘If – Then’ plans

Next, identify current unhelpful habits and create new habits.  Creating ‘If-then’ plans involves four steps:

2a.   Find your triggers – what’s the cue?

To change a habit you need to understand what triggers your current unhelpful behaviour.  Following our time busy manager example, a triggering event might be:

When someone says “have you got a minute?”

2b.   Identify the current habit

The next step involves identifying the current habitual behaviour.  In our example:

I say “yes”. 

2c.   What’s the reward for the current habit?

Now, identify the reward for the current habit.  In our example it might be:

I feel useful and helpful.

2d.   Design a new behaviour

The final step involves designing a new behaviour you can do in 60 seconds or less.

I’ll say, “not just now.  Can I come and see you at X time?”


What is your goal?  Make it an approach goal rather than an avoidance goal.


What will be the benefits of achieving this goal? 

e.g. Having leadership headroom – space to reflect, think, and imagine what’s possible.

e.g. I’ll feel calmer,  more focused and inspired.  Others will be more engaged and have a clearer sense of direction.

IF …

Identify the triggering event


Identify the current behaviour.  Also identify the reward you get from behaving this way.


What’s a new behaviour that will take 60 seconds or less?

e.g. Someone says “have you got a minute?”

Offering my advice.

Reward: feeling useful and helpful.

I’ll say “not just now.  Can I come and see you at X time?”

What are your unhelpful habits?  What gets in the way of you spending time and energy on what really matters?  Take the new habit challenge. Take The Challenge

Find Support 

Find someone you can design new habits with, such as a coach.  A coach will remind you of your commitments and support you to try again when you have set backs.

To learn more check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.