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Top 7 Leadership Bad Habits and How to Break Them

Eating that leftover jelly-filled donut or stopping at Taco Bell for a fourth meal on your way home from a long day at work will have consequences. Sometimes we are aware of how our bad habits impact us because we experience the immediate effect. Other times we have no idea of how our habits are negatively impacting ourselves and others. A habit is a practice or tendency that is hard to give up. We acquire habits through learning based on consequence reinforcement that can be considered either good or bad. Leadership bad habits can sometimes be rewarding, as the taste of a jelly-filled donut, or harmful as weight gained from eating too many donuts. The consequences of bad leadership habits vary and range from minor uncomfortable situations to those with organizational survival impacts. In leadership and life, it is easy to fall into bad habits. One helpful approach to breaking any bad habit is identifying the habit and replacing it with a new healthy habit. The following are my top seven leadership bad habits and some ideas for breaking them.

Leadership Bad Habit #1. Using positional power.

It is easy to fall into the trap that the only way to gain influence is to leverage positional power. I am the boss, so do as I say. Positional power is not always negative, but it can do great harm to any relationship if abused. Although positional power can prompt immediate action, it reduces others' motivation to give more than what is expected. When abused, it can lead to retaliation and the mindset of "when the cat is away; the mice will play." The result is that you may have people only doing what you direct when you are around. Abusing positional power prevents the realization of the full potential of what can be from motivating others to do more than what is expected.

Breaking the habit: Adopt a servant leadership style. Research has shown that a servant leadership style improves workplace productivity, performance, and organizational results and increases discretionary effort. Start using positive reinforcement. Find followers making an approximation of the behaviors you want more of and reinforce them for those behaviors.

Leadership Bad Habit #2. Attention deficit.

Fostering innovation within an organization is an increasingly important leadership behavior. Identifying worthy ideas requires seeing new patterns in the data. However, in today's fast-paced digital workplace, staying focused can be very challenging as leaders rush from meeting to meeting. Avoiding distractions and focusing is essential to identifying new patterns.

Breaking the habit: Keep a journal of problems that you find and ideas that you have. Using a journal helps you manage the negative impacts of rushing and role overload. Reflecting on the issues and innovative ideas written in the journal at a later time helps you recognize patterns and avoid cognitive errors caused by recency bias.

Leadership Bad Habit #3. Do as I say, not as I do.

Leadership is about influence. As a leader, you set expectations for the organization. Your actions speak louder than your words. When actions do not match what is said, it damages trust. Integrity moderates the degree of confidence in a relationship—the less honesty in the relationship, the less trust. No one wants to follow a leader that is not willing to follow their own advice.

Breaking the habit: No radical advice on this one. Ask others to help you become aware of situations where you do not live up to what you ask of others.

Leadership Bad Habit #4. Sending an email instead of talking.

Written communication is not a substitute for speaking directly with someone. It probably goes without needing scientific research to understand that face-to-face communication is the most effective communication form. Sending emails and texts can be deceptive because you feel like you are communicating; however, a message sent does not mean a message received. When you send an email in place of a face-to-face conversation, you minimize your influence potential and, ultimately, the relationship.

Breaking the habit: Prioritize meetings with those you lead. Establish a regular meeting schedule to make space for time to talk face-to-face. If you are unsure where to begin or question if it is possible, I recommend reading about the model presented by Patrick Lencioni in Death by Meeting.

Leadership Bad Habit #5. Employee training as "the" solution.

Not all issues involving employees require training. Unfortunately, many leaders hold an assumption that any productivity or behavioral problem can be solved with training. It is often perceived as a relatively quick and cheap, easy way to show visible action and document resolution to a problem. Training is a practical solution for knowledge and skills needs. However, training is often not the only or best solution. You can improve employee productivity, job satisfaction, and overall performance by not using training as a blanket solution to every workplace problem.

Breaking the habit: Before recommending training, conduct a root cause analysis to understand all the potential contributing factors. Talk with employees to find out what would help them most. Gilbert's behavior engineering model provides an excellent framework for investigating potential causes.

Leadership Bad Habit #6. Keeping secret the company strategy.

Strategic planning involves strategic thinking, acting, and influencing. Unfortunately, current research reveals that 95% of employees are unaware of or do not understand their organization's strategy. The difference between a realized strategy and a created strategy puts the organization at risk. Also, assuming you have all the answers puts your organization's survival at risk.

Breaking the habit: Involve others and practice empathy, energy, humility, and strategic foresight. Listen to employees to understand their needs, motivations, and concerns that any strategy can produce. This will lead to better strategic thinking, acting, and influence.

Leadership Bad Habit #7. Nearsighted business focus.

Focusing on the near team is easy and immediately rewarding. However, an organization focused only on the immediate is gambling with their future. One of the most significant downfalls of strategic planning is the failure to consider future changes. No one would argue that that the modern workplace is predictable. However, organizations desperately need leaders to adopt an approach to strategic planning that can account for the volatility, uncertainty, and complexity in the marketplace.

Breaking the habit: Introduce scenario planning as a decision-making tool to explore and understand the variety of potential issues impacting the organization. Teach employees strategic foresight skills such as the futures wheel.

Leadership Bad Habit or Addiction?

Bad habits can lead to addictions and can be difficult to break. How is it that we can know something is bad for us and still do it? We know eating that jelly-filled donut is likely not a good idea when we are trying to lose weight. We know telling our followers to do something we are not willing to do is not a good idea. So why do we keep doing it? And how do we stop?

Wanting to change is a good start, and learning new skills is a good idea. Anyone who has tried to exercise more, lose weight, or permanently change any long-standing habit knows it can be hard. Likely no one book, training event, or coaching session will produce lasting behavior change. That does not mean these are not helpful or important; it just means they need to be incorporated into a systemic change process. If you are interested in getting help to make a change, we would love to help.


Abraham, S. (2005). Stretching strategic thinking. Strategy & Leadership, 33(5), 5-12.

Chermack, T. (2011). Scenario planning in organizations: How to create, use, and assess scenarios. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Hernez-Broome, G., Boyce, L. A., & Ely, K. (2009). The coaching relationship: A glimpse into the black box of coaching. In L. A. Boyce & G. Hernez-Broome (Chair), The client-coach relationship: Examining a critical component of successful coaching. Symposium conducted at the 24th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, New Orleans, LA.

Hughes, R. L., Beatty, K. M., & Dinwoodie, D. (2014). Becoming a strategic leader: Your role in your organization's enduring success. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Patterson, K. (2003, October 16). Servant-leadership: A theoretical model [PDF]. Regent University School of Leadership Studies Servant-leadership Research Roundtable.


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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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