Helping People Develop Leader Habits: A Guide for HR Professionals

Adapted from “The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead in Just Minutes a Day” by Martin Lanik (Amacom, 2018).

Leadership, at its core, is a set of habits. How we interact with coworkers, customers, how we answer the phone, make decisions, plan and delegate work, or empower our employees are all to some degree influenced by habits. Positive habits make us better leaders, while negative habits hinder our performance. Via extensive research, studying nearly 800 leaders worldwide, my team and I identified the 22 core skills and the underlying micro-behaviors that the most effective leaders practice, which I describe in my book, “The Leader Habit,” and which form the basis for Pinsight’s online leadership development program.

By associating each micro-behavior with a natural cue and then deliberately practicing this pairing every day for 66 days, anyone can turn these effective leadership behaviors into habits. Once the new habits take root, people perform these effective leadership behaviors automatically, without having to rely on reminders, or even thinking about them. They just happen as seamlessly as making your bed in the morning. I call this The Leader Habit Formula.

The Leader Habit Formula provides a simple action plan for people who are ready to change their behavior and develop better leadership skills: Pick a simple daily exercise and practice it until the new behavior becomes a habit. Although the Formula makes change easier, don’t make the mistake of assuming people will just cruise through their practice for 66 days (or longer). Expect that people will need support, formally or informally, throughout the process, and understand that different people will need different kinds of support at different times. Some people will want to publicly voice their commitment to change to you, others will look to you for confirmation that they are on the right track, others will look for an accountability partner, and yet others will need you to enhance their self-efficacy (their belief that they have the ability to succeed in making the change).

When people first start to practice an exercise, they usually seek reassurance that they are on the right track. The new behavior feels awkward and uncomfortable during this phase, so it is natural for people to need reassurance and confirmation that they are doing it right. Remember how awkward it felt when you first started buckling up in your car or picking up a new sport. Even though the Leader Habit exercises are very simple, it’s unreasonable to expect people will master them right away. Mistakes are common early in the process and shouldn’t be taken as a sign of failure. You can support the learning in getting through these early uncertainties by affirming their efforts and helping to normalize the experience. Simple statements such as “Most people feel awkward the first time they try a new behavior” go a long way in this regard.

New behaviors begin to feel more natural as we gain proficiency, and as they become integrated into our self-image. We integrate behaviors into our self-image naturally over time—the more we do something, the more we see the behavior as part of who we are. There are also techniques you can use to help accelerate this integration. One is simply to have the learner cognitively process the experience of her practice through a brief reflection. Once the learner begins to change her behavior through deliberate practice, reflecting on the new behavior can help her to strengthen her positive identification with it and speed up the process of formulating her new self-image.

When helping people process a new experience, I recommend using a simple framework to guide the conversation. The framework I prefer is called EAR, which stands for “Expectation – Action – Result.” EAR is a basic model for understanding human behavior. Using EAR, we can think of our everyday experiences as consisting of our expectations, our actions, and the results of those actions.

Expectations are the thought processes that lead us to the actions we take; they include what we think about the situation we are in, any similar experiences we’ve had in the past, the assumptions we make, how we feel, and how we prioritize our competing needs and emotions.

Actions are our actual behaviors; they consist of what we say, do, or write in response to the situation and our expectations. Actions then lead naturally to results—the outcomes of our behavior.

Results include both our own reactions to what we have done and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of other people—what they do, say, or write in response to our actions.

You can use the EAR framework in almost any situation. In the context of the Leader Habit Formula, it is a good way to help people reflect on their first few experiences with their new exercise. For example, if you are using the framework to help someone reflect on his first few attempts with an exercise, you could ask about the action he took: “What did you do, say, or write?” Then you can explore what triggered the behavior with these questions: “What did you notice? What did you think about?” Finally, to help the learner reflect on the results of the exercise, you could ask, “What ended up happening as a result?”

If a learner’s first few attempts with his Leader Habit exercise are positive, he will be more likely to continue practicing the exercise.

Coaching Leader Habits is about providing the support people need as they work through the process of developing new leadership skills. This support can be formal or informal, depending on the situation. Either way, it all comes down to saying the right thing at the right time.

Always remember that people start the development journey on their own terms and in their own time, when they are ready to do so. People who are unaware of their bad habits or lack of skill and who show resistance to feedback probably are not ready for change. You can’t motivate them with criticism or threats of negative consequences or anything external; the motivation to change must come from within. At this stage, it’s best to help people develop the internal tension between their self-image and their actual behavior. Bringing such inconsistency into a person’s conscious awareness can create the insight that will motivate him or her to start a development journey.

Adapted from “The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead in Just Minutes a Day” by Martin Lanik. (Amacom, Copyright (c) 2018). All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. For more information, visit:

Martin Lanik, Ph.D. is the CEO of Pinsight, a global leadership development company. His leadership programs have been implemented by more than 100 companies—including AIG and CenturyLink—and have received awards from Chief Learning Officer and Brandon Hall. Lanik holds a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Colorado State University. You can learn more at: He is also the author of “The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead in Just Minutes a Day.”