Challenging Our Leadership Habits

We’re always looking for a better mousetrap.

I share our natural inclination to seek plug-and-play solutions to the challenges and choices we face as leaders. Books, blogs, coaches, and seminars abound with step-by-step recipes for our most complicated problems.

The sheer volume of these solutions is pretty compelling evidence that we like to streamline our mental effort through repeatable processes. Once we find something that works, we tend to stick with it.

To these tried and true management systems, we add learned behaviors that have enabled us to survive and succeed in a messy and complicated world. Over time, we internalize our preferred programs and without realizing it, we become attached to the routines and rituals we find so comforting. As a result, we stop paying attention and fail to notice when these habits are no longer effective.

When I sense this is happening I try to shift my focus from actor to observer. In the moment of choice, as my mind defaults to habitual thinking, problem-solving or emotional patterns, I pause and ask, “what’s beyond this?”, or “what else is possible?”. For me, this process exposes some pretty unpleasant realities.

  • I put people into categories and form assumptions about their motives or behavior. 
  • I default to learned responses and actions that have worked for me in the past.
  • I let my emotions tell me what to believe about the situation I’m experiencing.
  • I miss important details in my rush to solve a problem or move on to the next task.
  • I tune out what’s being said if it conflicts with my point of view or challenges my assumptions.

Do any of these revelations sound familiar? If I follow these programmed reactions with the question, “what else is possible?”, I am presented with any number of new options for my response. The trick is noticing and remembering to ask that question.

I’m simply trying to become more aware and reflect before I act or speak. I want to expand my choices in any given situation even if I decide to go with my gut response. I think doing so makes me a better person and a better leader.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”—Mahatma Gandhi

There’s a magic moment that determines the trajectory of our lives, yet it often passes by unnoticed and unclaimed. It’s the moment between stimulus and the response. The moment we can choose.

Stephen Covey describes our power in this moment as being “proactive”.  It’s the first of his “Seven Habits” and describes the practice we can apply to eliminate our ineffective habits and create new behaviors that serve our best intentions. Learning to be proactive is the foundation of self-awareness and self-improvement.

As leaders, we can learn to make space for this critical moment.

  • We can observe our reactions before we act.
  • We can choose to act intentionally.
  • We can retrain our mind.

We can make this process a habit of personal, continuous improvement.

Yes, this is hard because it’s an act of resistance. We have to push against the natural drift towards complacency and confront the idea that we are too busy, too smart or too important to give these behaviors our attention.

I encourage you to spend the next week observing your automatic responses in light of the areas where you are experiencing frustration or lack of progress in your leadership. You might just find the key that unlocks your potential.

One comment

  1. Dear Scott,
    Thank you for sharing another great leadership post! You are simply an amazing leader. I need to “become more aware and reflect before I act or speak”. I really need to practice this concept. Sometimes, It is so easy for me to react when someone says something mean or unkind remarks to me. I need to learn to stop, think, reflect and then respond. It is easier said than done. And sometimes, I need to dig deep to understand why that person makes nasty remarks to me. Perhaps, there is some resentment, anger, sadness, misunderstanding hidden underneath.


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