Cultivating the Habit of Leadership

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit."—Aristotle

For anyone even remotely familiar with The Leadership Challenge model and the work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, we understand as true the words of Aristotle when it comes to leadership. Jim and Barry have researched the behaviors that lead to effective leadership for over 30 years, and the evidence is clear: leaders who more frequently demonstrate the 30 leadership behaviors identified in the Leadership Practices Inventory are seen as more credible, leading more engaged and productive teams. But making a habit out of practice takes work.

Fortunately there is a new area of exploration into the connection between the brain and leadership that may benefit leaders in understanding how brain science can help them initiate and sustain effective leadership behaviors. In fact, when writing this article I considered titling it "training your brain for leadership" or "getting in the leadership groove," because the brain-leadership connection is one of the most fascinating new areas of discussion.

What we know is that a different part of our brain is used when contemplating and initiating new behaviors vs. that part of the brain that triggers automatic behavior.  When we embark on new learning and practice, the prefrontal part of our brain is engaged. However, as repeated actions make the behaviors more established and stronger, the "habit" part of our brain is activated and the behaviors become ingrained.

Here is where the "leadership groove" comes in. When we practice a behavior over and over, new "grooves" are formed from the neurons firing together in a new area of the brain. This wonderful possibility is due to the neuroplasticity of the brain which makes us capable of changing, adapting, and re-organizing neural pathways. These new pathways or roads make it easy to return there... becoming a habit!

As we increase our leadership frequency, we can also increase excellence by making deliberate and focused modifications through feedback. A widely quoted study is Anders Ericsson's 10,000 hours of practice. Here's an equation adapted from an article co-authored by Ericsson, The Making of an Expert, that may help to illustrate this idea:

Time (doing) + Focus (concentration) + Specialized/specific feedback = Excellence

Leaders who make space in their life for the practice of leadership, cultivate the competency of focused attention, and receive trusted feedback are more likely to have sustainable change. Feedback from coaching makes a difference. It enables small but important adjustments to "leadership grooves" and brings outsight and accountability to actual behaviors.

The field of neuroscience is a rich resource for understanding how to impact the outcome we hope to achieve in leadership development: excellence. Let's continue to exercise ‘outsight’ and learn from the vast array of knowledge available in this field. 

Holly Seaton, Ph.D, is Vice President and General Manager of FlashPoint, a Leadership Challenge Global Training Partner, where she specializes in leadership coaching. She can be reached at holly@flashpointleadership.com.  

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