Are people just born leaders?
Is there some secret sauce that they are fed as toddlers?
Or are they just the lucky ones who do one important thing at one fortunate moment in time that serendipitously causes them to become a leader?
Or are repeated actions and behaviours more indicative of success, especially as a leader?
What is the Secret to Great Leadership?
Well, it seems that business research has made a progressively more compelling case against the notion of a potential ‘leadership gene’1 or the idea that leadership comes down to one famous party trick or great influential moment.
Alongside this thinking is the critical notion that leadership is not about what you KNOW, it is about what you DO. Leadership is behaviourally based. Behaviours and consistent actions play out every day and in every interaction.
Repetitive behaviours form tendencies and practices in response to cues in our environments, which intimately forge who we are and what kind of influence we have on the people around us.
Does this sound like a concept you know about? Of course! These are called HABITS.
So then leadership is really about what we do, repeatedly. Could this be the leadership secret that everyone has been looking for?
Habits Are Powerful
Forming good habits seems to be a critical ingredient to leadership that many people overlook in approaching the development of leadership.
This is not a new concept or hypothesis. In 1926, Will Durant wrote in his book The Story of Philosophy2, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. If the thinking we are presenting here about leadership is correct, then perhaps this could be altered slightly: “Excellent leadership is not a once-off act, it’s a habit.”
“Excellent leadership isn’t a once-off act, it’s a habit.”
Habits Are Hard
The word “habit” often gets thrown around in the leadership literature and there are hundreds of books promising the reader success by simply forming certain habits. Are five habits enough? How about 12? Stephen Covey3 says it all comes down to seven, while Steve Scott says it is as many as 974.
These “habit-lists” can be very helpful, but often this self-help literature overlooks the necessary neurological reality of habit formation itself, and importantly, how to form the golden seven habits in the first place! Each book sells a specific number of habits to find success, yet, the lists of habits offered by authors are all different.
So you bought the book, read it twice, and took notes. You know that magical set of “habit-keys that unlock your leadership potential” inside out. But now, you’re struggling to turn those into habits.
Surely an important place to start is to interrogate the idea of habit-breaking and habit-forming. This is to effectively implement the habits most meaningful to your context, for excellent leadership.
Habits: Abstract or Specific?
Habits are automatic behavioural patterns in response to cues in our environments. They develop after we repeat a behaviour in the same context over and over again5. Habits are powerful (think, daily smoking versus daily teeth-brushing), and have positive or negative outcomes on our lives.
Sounds simple right? But habit formation can be tricky.
So, how long does it take? 21 days is the word on the street, often maintained by pop psychology magazines. But research shows that habit formation cannot be pinned down so easily.
Have you ever heard of the concept of automaticity? We hadn’t either. The research from the European Journal of Social Psychology tells us that we reach automaticity when our actions become an automatic response pattern.
Automaticity, therefore, increases over time, as we repeat each new action over and over again. Brushing teeth every morning before leaving home is no longer a new action once it becomes automatic, a done thing, as part of a routine.
The graph below represents the results from one of the participants in the research to illustrate how automaticity develops and stabilises.
And this is the interesting part – automaticity begins to stabilise once the action has become automatic (because that action is now part of our behaviour pattern). According to the research, for most people to get an action to become automatic (i.e. to reach automaticity) 21 days just won’t do it.
The research showed that there is a wide variance in how much time it may take different people to form habits ranging from 18 (days for the lucky/unlucky few) through to as many as 254 days for others.
Yup, you read that correctly. The actual average is around 66 days which is far from the measly 21 days you read about. And what if you are someone who takes closer to the 254 days… well, you probably have long ago forgotten about that book you once read about habits.
That kind of changes what you thought about habits, right? They’re not easy to form and maintain and they take hard work and conscious effort over time to create. So just reading the book and knowing about which habits to have can’t be where the power lies. Otherwise everyone who has read the book would suddenly be an overnight leadership success.
Most often, the majority of people, after reading about the “habits”, soon forget about them and so instead of becoming habits, they fade away into a chapter of a book we once read.
“Research shows it takes roughly 66 days on average to form a habit. For some it can take as long as 254 days.”
Because habit formation requires effort, we should focus on developing the skills that are needed to actually form and maintain the habits.
So which skills should we be focusing on?
Emotional Intelligence Is Responsible For 85% Of Habit Formation
A vital sphere in leadership development is the role of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Since author and science journalist, Daniel Goleman suggested back in 1998, that 85% of leadership skills lie in the domain of emotional competencies6, the importance of EQ in successful leadership development has emerged as an undisputed truth.
However, there is little research concerning the link between EQ and habits.
Without certain sub-competencies of EQ (resilience, grit, stress tolerance, impulse control, emotional regulation, optimism etc.), the forming of healthy habits, and the changing of bad habits, is a pipedream. It seems the missing link in the research around habits and leadership is that EQ is necessary to develop good habits.
“EQ is necessary to develop good habits.”
EQ development leads to self-management which is vital to maintain the repetition of behaviours long enough for habit formation, which ultimately develops leadership. When leaders have strong, defined habits, their leadership can be characterised by consistently doing great things for their people and organisations.
Habits Aren’t Magic
(no Wingardium Leviosa will help here, sorry)
Trying to stick to habits without developed EQ may lead to disappointment. The habits themselves aren’t magic, the presence of EQ is.
Think of it like this: growing and maintaining a healthy apple tree is not as simple as gluing juicy apples onto the branches.
Good fruit is a result of a healthy tree. Other contributing factors are the nutrients in the soil, fresh air and adequate water. So if you want healthy apples, focus on feeding the tree.
And if you want strong leadership, develop EQ, and habits will be part of the fruits of your labour. Yes, that pun was intended.
Developing EQ Is Impossible Without Habits
Wait, what? You just said…
We know. Bear with us.
You can develop leadership through habit formation because developing EQ requires habits but perhaps not the habits you have been sold in those leadership books.
EQ is hard to develop. Not because the act of developing EQ is complicated, but because it’s often easier to remain stagnant. Due to the simplicity, action may not necessarily be taken. As the business philosopher Jim Rohn once said: “some things are so easy to do, they’re easy not to do”7.
The simple act of eating an apple every day (you know, to keep the doctor away) is so easy to do, but it’s just as simple to not do it. And eating all those apples on Saturday night ahead of Sunday just doesn’t get the same job done.
When it comes to behaviour, a rewiring of our psychology and neurology is required to move to create lasting change. This can only happen over time by unfailingly practising EQ techniques to rewire the neural pathways in the emotional centres of the brain, which ultimately changes a person’s default responses.
EQ is a set of skills rooted in the emotional centres of the brain – skills like resilience, optimism, stress tolerance, and impulse control, among others. Recognise these? These EQ skills are the exact skills needed to form or break a habit. Notice how we call these skills. Back to the “are people born with it?” question. The answer is not necessarily, as skills imply we can develop them. We can develop them and improve these through EQ and habits.
EQ Development Is Like Physical Fitness
A good way to think of habit formation and EQ is with another analogy – the gym. In order to get fitter in the gym, you need to create a few habits. The first habit you need is actually going to the gym regularly. This comes first.
Flexing and developing your muscles in the gym is the same as developing your EQ. Your muscles only increase in size or quality if you are habitually committed to developing them.
Each bicep curl and each step on the treadmill is representative of a habit. Unless you can get into the habit of repeating the EQ techniques that will rewire the neural pathways in your brain, your default ways of responding to the world will unlikely change.
EQ Habit Formation Is The Secret to More Effective Leadership
The evolving field of leadership studies has grown and stretched into every area of modern life. The trending topic of leadership development has become an established, fully-fledged industry. According to the Chief Learning Officer of Business Intelligence Board, some learning organisations estimate leadership development to cost as much as $50 billion annually8.
There are now hundreds of theories, broken into many aspects outlining what a leader is, how a leader grows, which traits a leader has, etc. It feels like each month a new study or model is published. Put almost any adjective in front of the term “leadership” and you’ll probably find some book or article about it.
If companies are spending millions every year to develop their leaders, evidently, there’s a great need for leadership development assistance. It seems that there is almost a desperate and frantic effort to find the key to excellent leadership.
But the ability to form habits, to have the skills that are needed to keep on keeping on long enough to reach automaticity, this is an often-overlooked skill set in leaders.
“Habits pave the way for excellent leadership.
EQ paves the way for excellent habits.”
This is the big reveal: Forming Habits is the Secret to Great Leadership!
More specifically, perhaps the secret to great leadership lies not so much in uncovering which habits to form, but rather in focusing on the set of skills that enable one to create good habits. The set of skills that are commonly referred to as EQ. To read more about the online EQ development platform, Mygrow, click here.
1. Bendelta, A.M. (2017). Leaders really are made and not born. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com.au/leaders-really-are-made-and-not-born-2017-6.
Andersen, E. (2012). Are Leaders Born or Made? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/11/21/are-leaders-born-or-made/#15f42248d560.
2. Durant, W. (1926). The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers. Simon & Schuster.
3. Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon and Schuster.
4. Scott, S.J. (2014). Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
5. Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(SUPPL1). https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2011.60364
6. Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. Bantam.
7. Rohn, J. (n.dd). Success Is Easy, But So Is Neglect. Get Motivation. Retrieved from http://www.getmotivation.com/jimrohn/jreasy_success.html.
8. Prokopeak, M. (2018). Follow the Leader(ship) Spending. Chief Learning Officer. Retrieved from https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2018/03/21/follow-the-leadership-spending/.