Most of us have lots of ideas what we’d like to be like, what we intend to commit to, and what “success” looks like for us.

We have in other words a vision, a dream of something that drives us, and that enables us to build strategies into our career plans so that we tick those boxes that we need to so we can attain that goal.

But in order to do so, we must pay critical attention to what our habits are, identify where we fall off the leadership wagon, and which habits we need to strengthen in order  to get up and running again.


Being an inclusive leader is a daily practice

In a recent Harvard Business Review article on Inclusive Leadership, Juliet Bourke and Andrea Espedido note that the key for example for being an inclusive leader is that you are one on daily basis:

“inclusive leadership is not about occasional grand gestures, but regular, smaller-scale comments and actions… inclusive leadership is tangible and practiced every day”.

So only envisioning a goal of being a particular kind of leader or person is not enough: we must form habits that showcase that identity on daily basis and cement this into our daily practice.

For example, inclusive leaders share with their staff their personal weaknesses (such as not knowing enough about a topic), they are aware of cultural differences when leading diverse teams, and knows all their team members individually and by name.

Inclusive leaders also use feedback to check that their staff is perceiving them as inclusive, and deliberately use daily situations to make sure that they are living up to this ideal.

This is particularly important because the statistics do not lie: leaders who are able to be more inclusive and are perceived to be so have higher performing teams and happier people at the work place:

“leaders who consciously practice inclusive leadership and actively develop their capability will see the results in the superior performance of their diverse teams”. 

So this is very much about forming a daily habit and making sure that every snippet of opportunity can be used to strengthen the leadership style.

Inclusive leadership is an actual daily routine and cannot be easily faked: people feel and sense disingenuous behaviour and take steps back from that person even if they have lots of power within an institution.


The 18-month test for habit formation

So how long should you keep going so that you are sure that you have a solid habit?

According to Ray Dalio, “research suggests that if you stick with a behaviour for approximately 18 months, you will build a strong tendency to stick to it nearly forever” (p. 221).

So what does that mean for inclusive leadership, how we change our internal view of the world, and how we interact with others?

These past weeks I have to confess that I have been really trying to integrate such ideas into my daily practice like inclusive transparent leadership, being strategic at work in building coalitions and networks, and also quieting my brain from the constant chatter that often goes in our minds.

To be honest, this habit forming is hard work: I personally feel that I have failed with most of that these past weeks because I notice that my mind is still like a monkey, happily jumping from one branch to another, non-stop movement that does not always give me time to reflect.

But I have had also wins in trying to form these new habits of reflection and inclusive leadership: I have managed to quiet my mind at times, I have stopped and acknowledged that I need and can trust the process, and that a lot of my fears are my mind running future scenarios to make sure I am covering all the necessary angles.

But two things are emerging as keys in building habits and through that better leadership style and performance: feedback and seeing the big picture.


Seeking feedback to confirm habits 

We cannot progress in building positive habits if we don’t have a feedback loop that shows us whether we are making the right choices or not.

Humans are incredibly biased when it comes to self-perception and self-awareness: we are more inclined to think we are doing the right thing and quick to judge that others are not.

So seeking constant feedback is important as it holds up a mirror to us and lets us see how our behaviour and actions are impacting others (that is, if you have people who are ready to engage in frank and honest conversations).

This is extremely challenging for many because it takes a lot of humility and self-awareness to hear, take in, and then accept what we are hearing.

The quickest and natural response to negative feedback is that other people just don’t get us, that they are wrong, and that we know much better what we are doing and why.

Yet, in order to learn to lead, you must engage in open-minded transparent conversations  with your team so that you can clearly see whether the habits you are wanting to form are in fact increasing the well-being of your staff.

But this is not a one-way road but also applies to the kinds of conversations you need to have with your staff and colleagues.

As Ray Dalio notes in Principles,

“To help people succeed you have to do two things: First, let them see their failures so clearly that they are motivated to change them, and then show them how to either change what they are doing or rely on others who are strong where they are weak” (p. 434).

So admitting failure and wrong kinds of habits is not only healthy but highly necessary if you want to improve yours and your team’s performance and well-being.

Seek therefore good challengers that can show where you have room for improvement:

“It is also more important to have good challengers than good followers. Thoughtful discussion and disagreement is practical because it stress-tests leaders and brings what they are missing to their attention” (p. 462).

But this is not enough because you have to also understanding the bigger picture about your overall vision and how everything fits together.


Seeing the big machine

But understanding failures and weaknesses is merely the first step in thinking about which habits you should keep and which you should discard, and which to change and how.

The next step is really about seeing the big machine: this is a higher level view of how all your habits, visions and goals are interlinked, co-exist and influence each other:

“Unless you have a clear understanding of your machine from a higher level- and can visualise all its parts and how they work together- you will inevitably fail at this diagnosis and fall short of your potential” (p. 450).

What Dalio means here is that we need to strategically practice higher-level view and thinking and that “higher-level thinking isn’t something that’s done by higher-level beings. It’s simply seeing things from the top down” (p. 450).

When you have a more of a bird eye view, it is much easier to see how particular habits, thoughts, and actions are influencing the bigger whole, whether that is an organisation or your personal situation or an idea.

Taking the time to reflect on these linkages, understanding dynamics between different goals and actions, makes it much easier as well to develop solid plans and align actions towards common goals.

Dalio encourages us therefore to think about our organisations and lives as big machines where each part has a specific function, and how to understand which parts need fixing, you have to understand what the main outcome is supposed to be, and how all these different parts connect and support each other and each action.


Leadership as a critical habit

To sum up, leadership is a habit and a skill that can and should be developed; it is not an innate talent that some privileged CEOs have somehow discovered and now just know how to lead well.

It is also not a well-kept secret: just look at the number of leadership books, podcasts, blogs, and media articles about it so learning to lead is a habit that is available for those who want to strengthen their daily habits of leadership.

For those serious about leadership development, the Coaching for Leaders Academy is currently accepting applications for the next leadership cohort.

(This previous blog post sums up my experience in the Academy, with this word describing my experience the best: utterly life-changing).

Universities also offer courses and workshops, like our Manager as a Coach program where I have the privilege now to be a lead coach in, that can help in starting to think more creatively which leadership habits are worth developing and how to do so in practice.