#FutureProof Leadership is Built on Good Habits

How can we make habits #FutureProof?

I’ve been thinking a lot about habits over the past few months. This is probably because we’ve all had to change so many of them and then create new ones to adapt to life with COVID19. But also, habits make life easier during times of upheaval. Why? First, habits are entirely within our control, even when the rest of the world isn’t; and second, they require no thought.

We are all exhausted from zoom, news, home schooling, caretaking, and the overall uncertainty of daily life. Habits, by definition, don’t require any additional thought and do not add to the exhaustion. And it’s good habits that can keep us going through the hard times.

When professionals contemplate habits, it’s hard to do so without recalling Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I originally read Covey 20+ years ago, at the start of my career. Re-reading it now from a leadership position is a very different experience. Not only because we are more likely retain different information at this stage of our lives, but as leaders, we need to be looking for potential leaders within our teams. This is why I highly recommend all leaders revisit the book, especially, if like me, it’s been awhile.

For reference, here’s a quick summary of Covey’s seven habits:

  1. Be proactive®
  2. Begin with the end in mind®
  3. Put first things first®
  4. Think win-win®
  5. Seek first to understand, then be understood®
  6. Synergize®
  7. Sharpen the saw®

The first three habits are what Covey defines as the “dependent” phase of our lives. This is where we start out our careers, and as we master the first three habits, we ultimately achieve a level of independence and become effective in our work and lives. However, it takes the next three habits to move from independence to interdependence — the highly effective phase — and then we need the seventh habit to stay there.

If you read Covey years ago at the outset of your career, you probably focused on the first three habits. As a leader, it’s time to revisit the remaining four. Not just for your own personal and professional development but because you probably have all three types of people in your companies — dependent, independent, and interdependent. Understanding how to identify and then work with and/or empower each type can lead to increased productivity at all levels.

  1. Dependent employees need others to get what they want. These are employees who are just starting out. They will require mentorship and training to move to the next level of independence.
  2. Independent employees can get what they want through their own effort. Independent employees may be good individual producers, but they won’t be good leaders or team players. Some of your independent employees will be able to progress to interdependence. As a leader you need to know who can and who cannot, so that you do not waste time attempting to coach the uncoachable, or promoting someone into a position requiring teamwork.
  3. Interdependent employees combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve remarkable results. These are the true successes and leaders in making. They are interdependent with others and therefore team players. They are also role models (having well balanced careers and lives) and are consistent producers and likely to be open to mentoring. They are also the least likely employees to leave when things get challenging, unlike independent employees.

By default, as a leader, you are interdependent.

In the first three Covey habits, the focus is on building your personal principles. It’s about being principle-centered, whatever those principles may be. Like habits, once principles are ingrained, decision-making gets easier. And don’t underestimate the importance of that — as leaders, we make hundreds of decisions large and small in a single day or week, and that in and of itself is exhausting. The more we can fall back on our principles and our good habits, the easier and quicker the decision-making process. But good leadership doesn’t develop after the first three habits.

Leaders are interdependent by the nature of their position. And highly effective leaders lean into this interdependency.

A quick note about the importance of decision-making as an element of leadership. Recent research has revealed that confident decision-making is one of the four key behaviors of great CEOs. In The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders by Elena Botelho and Kim Power, they identified the following as the four key behaviors for successful CEOs.

  1. They are decisive
  2. They are relentlessly reliable
  3. They adapt boldly
  4. They engage with stakeholders without shying away from conflict

In other words CEOs exhibiting these four behaviors are leaning into their interdependency and have likely mastered Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

FutureProof Leaders are principle AND people-centered.

As we review Covey’s Habits 4–7 (the interdependence phase), it’s not enough to be principle-centered, leaders must also be people-centered. Below is a quote that really struck me and I recommend reading the full text of this speech from Colin Powell in 2003. In this address, Powell goes beyond Covey and his principle-centered focus and clearly states that leaders must first and foremost be people-centered.

Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered. Colin Powell, Why Leadership Matters in the Department of State, 2003 Leadership Lecture.

So how can a leader be both principle AND people-centric? That’s where we turn back to Covey’s habits.

Stephen Covey’s Habit 4: Think Win-Win® — The 6 Paradigms of Human Interaction

In this section of the book, Covey breaks down what he defines as the six paradigms of interaction between people.

  1. Win/Win — It’s not your way or my way, it’s a better way.
  2. Win/Lose — For me to win, others must lose.
  3. Lose/Win — I have to lose for others to win.
  4. Lose/Lose — When the lawyers come out (that’s when you know you are in a lose/lose situation.)
  5. Win/Don’t Care — This is when someone wants to win but doesn’t care whether other people lose; they just want what they want. Everyone else is on their own.
  6. Win/Win or No Deal — The ultimate interdependence strategy. This happens when preserving the relationship takes precedence over anyone winning.

In interdependent leadership — Win/Win is the only real alternative. If we can’t make it a Win/Win, then the best alternative is to walk away. Your relationships and your principles need to rule over the result. This was a takeaway that didn’t register for me 20 years ago, but really resonated in this later stage of my career.

So how do interdependent leaders make Win/Win decisions? According to Covey, it starts with Character. And Character is made up of Integrity, Maturity and an Abundance Mentality.

  • Integrity — When we align our actions with our values.
  • Maturity — The balance between courage and consideration. Per Covey: “The ability to express one’s own feelings and convictions balanced with consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others.”
  • Abundance Mentality — A belief that there is plenty for everyone.

As interdependent leaders we should model these behaviors and seek out team members who also have integrity, maturity and an abundance mentality.

Covey Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood®.

This habit is all about empathetic communication. It’s taking the time to diagnose before you prescribe. The same solutions that worked in Situation A may not work in Situation B. When you listen deeply to other people you will discover differences in perception. In interdependent situations, you need to appreciate those differences. Two people can look at the same thing and see something totally different, but still both be right or agree that there is yet another solution. This is a nuance that has been lost in recent years.

Interdependent leaders understand this nuance and are open to new ideas and perceptions. In fact, they go to the edges of their companies and social circles and listen to and learn from those least like themselves. This is crucial in today’s upheaval where precedent does not play as important of a role as it does in times of complacency.

Covey Habit 6: Synergy® is the essence of principle-centered leadership.

Synergy is what happens when interdependent people come together, listen empathetically and push for the Win/Win. Synergy catalyzes, unifies, and unleashes the greatest powers within people. Synergy happens when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s creative cooperation, and interdependent leaders understand and will harness that power.

In essence, synergy happens when a group collectively agrees to subordinate old scripts to write a new one together. It’s hard, and can be uncomfortable, but it works. It is the epitome of being highly effective in an interdependent reality. Synergy is teamwork, team building, and the development of unity and creativity with other human beings.

Which brings us to the last Covey habit.

Covey Habit 7: Sharpening the Saw®

This is the renewal, the constant learning and relearning. It’s about examining what is working and where improvements can be made and how to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s about constantly learning. It’s about making sure you and your teams have access to and are using the best tools and resources. It’s about continual reinvention and growth for everyone on your team.

But Habit 7 is not just about work, it’s also about balance. It’s making sure all parts of your life are working. We need to be principle and people-centered, not just at work but also within all parts of our lives. That is true interdependency and what leads to being highly effective in all parts of your life.

Bottom Line: Leadership in times of upheaval is tough, but leaders who lean into their interdependency are principle and people-centric and will have more balance, be more energized and, most of all, will remain futureproof.

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