Wesley Cate

Why Good Habits Fail to Grow Sustainable Leaders

When I led the tune-up of a company’s volunteering program a few years ago, I ran myself into a brick wall. Luckily, the project itself was successful. We saw over 70 percent employee engagement in the company’s program; but my leadership wasn’t sustainable.

I mimicked influential behaviors — good communication, compelling vision, a sense of urgency, confidence (maybe too much) — without much internal substance. As a result, I felt anxious and distant from others. Thankfully, someone had the insight to call out the dissonance between my internal world and my external behaviors. As a result, I turned my attention toward cultivating vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion; in other words, more sustainable leadership.

Leaders often over rely on habit/behavior formation to increase their performance or the performance of their teams at the exclusion of deep internal work. These fixes can be superficial and are likely to fall short in increasing leadership capacity. To grow as authentic leaders, people need new, uncomfortable experiences (what the Center for Creative Leadership calls heat) and a way to connect performance behaviors to internal transformation.

Heat changes states of matter, and it changes people. When heat is added or subtracted from liquid water, it transitions to a gas or a solid. The chemical makeup stays the same, but the molecules rearrange themselves to accommodate the heat. With this restructuring comes new principles that govern each state. You can crunch ice. You can drink liquid water. You can inhale vapor. It’s all water, but the structure changes depending on the amount of heat the water contains.

This phenomenon, called phase transition, looks a lot like how people grow and develop.

Uncertain, uncomfortable situations force us to look for new ways of doing things. This heat, along with some other pressures, can force us to reconfigure our perspective, resulting in growth. For me, I experienced heat when the need to catalyze sustainable change exceeded my character and experience at the time. Heat can be disillusioning, even painful, but it isn’t sufficient on its own for growth. Leaders need perspectives that collide with their own to help them capture the ROI potential of these heat experiences. I happened to have a mentor that provided me with insightful inputs that helped jar my leadership into a better direction and set me on a pathway of deeper work.

If we only focus on habit formation during seasons of heat, we end up with artificial leadership that can’t sustain the influence we might have hoped for. If we only focus on our internal work, we end up navel gazing (I’m an Enneagram 4w3 notorious for both of these polarities…) without the performance effects.

In the book The Leadership Pipeline, the authors explain the various transitions people go through as they grow in their leadership capacity. A founder of a growing company may struggle to wrap their head around new levels of complexity; or an “all-star” contributor that finds themself leading a team can struggle to build trust unless their inner world reconfigures. According to the book, three things need to reconfigure during leadership transformations: values, time, and skills. Yes, leaders will need new chops (skills/behaviors/habits) as they grow, but there’s a more fundamental transformation missing from this list — identity.

Time: Our perspective on time matures toward complexity as well. We can give up grasping impulses, knowing that openhandedness builds trust and capacity for the long-run. We can spend more time on visioning and imagination, because our teams need it to navigate. We can also look backwards to incorporate history and context in our decisions. At the same time, we’ve got to stay present in the moment and attend to the here and now.

Values: We start to trade-off the impulse for self-preservation or competition for generosity and collaboration. Creating opportunity becomes more interesting than seizing opportunity. Excellence becomes a measure of well-being rather than a measure of KPIs. Vulnerability becomes more important than maintaining an image.

Skills: We need the right kind of skills/habits/behaviors to match our leadership capacity. Most leadership development programs focus on skill development: better communication, better problem solving, better self-management, better actions for how to show up, etc. Developing these skills is important, but isn’t sufficient on its own.

Identity: We start to see ourselves differently. We’re no longer a technical expert, an all-star individual contributor, or even a maverick entrepreneur. We become a steward of a team, a coach, and a developer of others. This is not an easy shift, and can feel like we’re giving up power or attention. In reality, we become more authentic versions of ourselves.

As these shifts take place, we can start to develop behaviors that tether themselves to our new perspective. Whereas previously, I might have simply focused on getting the job done (old value) and moving quickly (behavior), after my heat experience I recognized that strategy is as much about building capacity in others (new value) as it is about insight; and so I’ve adjusted my strategy process so that it’s much more collaborative – even if it takes longer (new behavior tethered to new value).

If you’re experiencing heat and feel stuck, great – lean into it. Uncomfortable learning experiences create the right conditions for maturity. But to fully realize the ROI from tough lessons, we need some internal restructuring tethered to right actions.

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