Leadership Rituals and the Power of Habit

01/30/2013 04:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2013

If you are like most Americans, you worked on turning over a new leaf and taking up some new habits at the start of 2013. And you may have already abandoned them and returned to your old habits. Most resolutions to change our behavior don't last more than a few weeks at best, and it can take three months to really make a new habit permanent. As a leader, your core habits become your leadership rituals.

Leadership rests on the foundation of rituals, and it is ritual which binds us together, honors our higher intentions, and acknowledges our journey. Your personal rituals -- what you make time for, and what you do not -- become the leadership rituals that define your influence, your style and your legacy. When you decide to have a clean desk, an empty inbox, run every morning, eat more vegetables, you are articulating your values and setting the example for people who work with you. You are creating a set of rituals that give you energy, exert your influence, and shift the way you are perceived.

To be a more powerful leader, you first need to connect your leadership rituals to your own higher purpose. What values are already a part of your identity? How could you honor them more fully? How would creating strong rituals around those values move you and your organization/family/group toward your goals? Connecting rituals to your higher purpose gives them the power to inspire and motivate you when they seem hard to maintain.

Once you have identified your new leadership ritual, how can you turn it into a habit that sustains itself over time? The formula is simple: your ability to establish the new habit is proportional to the attractiveness of the results of the new habit, times the pain of the current state, over the cost of changing. So in order to create a powerful ritual, it needs to be relieving a significant pain, creating a significant benefit, or both. And it needs to be something that can be easily begun.

Many leadership rituals create focus, clarity or energy. Executives create health rituals, or time management rituals, or thought rituals that reduce stress and anxiety and create more physical, mental and emotional energy to tackle the leadership challenge each day. The current pain may be a sense of overwhelm, anxiety, or poor sleep or physical symptoms. The benefit may be a sense of focus and purpose each day, or better physical health to sustain long days and intense periods of work or travel. What rituals would give you more time, space or energy to address your challenges and move forward more rapidly?

Once you have identified a new ritual that will move you forward, you need to identify a first step that takes you in the direction of your goal. Change one thing. One simple thing. Drink more water. Go to sleep 30 minutes earlier. Spend the last 30 minutes of the day identifying your successes today and your 3 key actions for tomorrow. Any new ritual can be the start of your powerful leadership ritual if it honors your values and enables something new for you.

To really lock this in, you need to keep up any new habit for 90 days. What support can you create in your environment to make this easy to maintain? Is there someone who will do this with you, help remind you, or keep you focused when it's easy to fall back into old patterns? Can you shift your physical space to support the ritual? Sometimes a reminder placed in plain view, or a change in furniture or orientation of an office or bedroom or exercise space can be the jolt that keeps you on track.

Building fearless leadership is a journey, not a single decision. Decide today on what your leadership journey is about, and develop the habits that will support you and bring your values to life. Fearless leadership is supported with great leadership rituals.