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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

6 Steps to Creating Better Leadership Habits

Let's face it. Those you lead already know you are not perfect. It may be a minor shortcoming that is a blind spot, or it could be a bad habit negatively impacting your performance, those you lead, or financial results. Striving for better habits is a competitive advantage for any leader looking for a powerful point of differentiation. Once an effective leader becomes self-aware of an accidental habit, the only real question to consider is between choice or change. Lasting change begins with a choice. It is one thing to recognize the need for change and another to be entirely willing to act and continuously improve. If you choose to create better leadership habits – let me suggest that you consider the following six steps.

"The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken." – Samuel Johnson⁠

Myth-Busting: It takes 21 days to form a habit

Habits are routines, patterns, or practices performed regularly. A common myth is that it takes 21 days to break a habit. It is believed that evidence from the 1960 book 'Psycho-cybernetics' by Dr. Maxwell Maltz led to the myth of 21 days for habit formation.

The number of times you complete a healthy habit before it becomes a habit can vary substantially by the person and the situation. One study concluded it typically ranges from 18-254 days of consistency. The key is repetition, and eventually, it will become a habit.

What is the best way to create a new leadership habit?

After you begin with a choice, these steps will keep you moving in your best direction:

Step 1: Know Your Why

Living daily without a vision for the future is not a great approach if you want to make the most of your life. Success and significance are not accidents and will require being deliberate and persevering. Starting with the end in mind goes far beyond knowing what habit you want to create. It requires considering why and what outcome you want from your personal and professional investment of time and energy. To answer this question, you have to factor in the impact you will have on others, what you stand for, and how you want to show up daily.

Ikigai (e-key-guy) is a Japanese concept that refers to your direction or purpose in life, providing fulfillment, satisfaction, and a sense of meaning. The literal translation consists of two words, 'iki' meaning to live and 'gai' meaning reason. Evidence suggests that the positive psychological effects of ikigai include professional success, well-being, and physical benefits such as longevity of life. A study of over 40,000 adults found that men and women with ikigai had a decreased risk for death from external causes.

Step 2: Create a Development Plan

You may have heard the saying that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. There is not a one-size-fits-all plan template. However, a good development plan, at a minimum, should include your why, making it easy, making it automatic, planning for accountability, and falling forward. Also, writing down your goals is associated with goal success. Evidence suggests you are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to accomplish goals when they are vivid and explicit versus when they are not.

Step 3: Make it Easy

Don't try to make too many changes at once. Make it easy. When creating a new habit, pick one change to make that's easy and then gradually increase. Multiple changes at once make creating a new habit more difficult. For example, if your goal is to create a healthy habit of appreciative thinking. Rather than starting with implementing an appreciative inquiry summit or redesigning your organization's approach to strategic planning, pick one appreciative question to incorporate into existing one-to-one meetings. Keeping it simple to start allows you to build on success.

Step 4: Make it Automatic

Habit stacking is a proven approach to starting and making a new habit automatic. Habit stacking involves connecting new habits with existing habits to make them memorable. For example, suppose you are looking to create a habit of saying thank you to your team. In that case, you could benefit from connecting it with another behavior you already have formed. For example, if you walk through your facility each day to check on production status, you could start using that time to catch your team doing something valuable and immediately say thank you. Pairing new habits with existing routines is proven to make the new habit more memorable and establishes automaticity.

Step 5: Get an Accountability Partner

Life was not meant to be done alone. Too often, we fail to consider how we can leverage accountability to help us create a new healthy habit. Being accountable to ourselves and someone we trust is proven to help you create a new habit. Conducting check-in meetings with your accountability partner will increase motivation and habit consistency. We all tend to do better when someone is watching, even if that someone is you. Daily reflection and considering improvement opportunities establish personal accountability and a continuous improvement mindset.

Step 6: Fail Forward

No, I didn't just say to fail—plan for falling forward and not backward. When you first learned to walk, you fell more than you walked. You are human, and failure only comes with giving up. Being consistent is essential for creating a new habit and not being perfect. Develop a plan for getting back on track when you fall. It's not that you expect to fail but thinking ahead about how you will get back up rather than being perfect. Creating new habits is not a game of all or nothing.

Conclusion: 6 Steps to Creating Better Leadership Habits

The steps described were not an exhaustive list of every potential action you will need to overcome every challenge you may have or encounter when creating new leadership habits. Instead, these steps help you with the more common situations and significant difficulties you may encounter.

"We must be the change we wish to see in the world." Gandhi

With a bit of planning, you can create better leadership habits. Effective leadership makes a difference. Breaking bad habits and creating good habits is possible but not easy. Like hiking, the first step begins with being entirely willing to make a change.


Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. Avery.

Cleo, G., Glasziou, P., Beller, E., Isenring, E., & Rae, T. (2019). Habit-based interventions for weight loss maintenance in adults with overweight and obesity: a randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Obesity, 43(2), 374-383.

Garcia, H. & Miralles, F. (2018). Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life. Penguin Life.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, Cornelia H., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

Murphy, M. (2010). HARD goals: The secret to getting from where you are to where you want to be. McGraw Hill.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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