Taking the Helm: Better leadership relies on forging better habits

May 31, 2019 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Leadership and behavior are the same thing. To change our leadership, we need to change our behavior. This critical point often gets skipped over in our pursuit to become better. While there are many ways to increase leadership knowledge – books, videos, live courses or classes, one-on-one coaching, etc. – it all boils down to this: To become a better leader we must change what we do. Without conscious, ongoing behavior change, no amount of book reading, video watching or classes will have any effect on our success as a leader.

A major factor in behavior change is habit. Until we can overcome our undesirable habits and turn new, better actions into habits, we’ll face the challenge of wanting to do one thing (the new behavior) while we actually do another (the old habit).  

A major underlying, and often unrealized, reality about leadership training is that a lot of the material and instruction relies on the notion of what we hope will happen in the future or what we expect a leader to aspire to in the future. In other words, a lot of it is abstract, aspirational, feel-good information rather than concrete, actionable steps to put into practice.

For example, the concept of leadership that Simon Sinek describes in his book “Leaders Eat Last” rests on the notion that altruism, humility and putting everyone ahead of ourselves demonstrates superior leadership. Don’t get me wrong, these are laudable concepts for everyone, leaders or not, to aspire to. Unfortunately, it’s often not the reality. Leaders are, first and foremost, people. We all make mistakes, annoy others, say and do foolish things, and sometimes are seen as a bad person. This isn’t really addressed in leadership training programs.

So, back to the original statement: Leadership is behavior. If I’m enthusiastic, energetic, willing to do any job and work well with my teammates, I’m  likely to be seen as a team leader. On the other hand, if I bark orders and expect obedience, tell teammates to do one thing while I do the other, or demand they do things I wouldn’t do myself, I shouldn’t expect to be seen as a leader. Nor will I be seen as someone others want to spend any time with.

Leadership is a process of demonstrating and then coaching others to succeed. In order to improve leadership, we have to take the time and put in the honest effort to ruthlessly examine our behaviors, get feedback from others about how they experience our leadership, and ask for help to change what we unconsciously do. When we better understand how others receive our leadership, we’ll have a better chance of making change for our success.


  • Ask for objective feedback

You need to change what others need you to change, not what you think you should change. We see ourselves in the best light, while others may have a different view. Ask trusted colleagues to give you feedback on your leadership. Something like: Name one or two things you’d like me to change. Keep the feedback focused on leadership qualities.  

  • Decide on the best change to make

After you get feedback from a few people, look for commonalities. Is there one particular thing everyone says or comments on? If so, consider making that a priority for change.

  • Ask for help along the way

Tell the people who gave you feedback you are going to do something about what you were told. Tell teammates what you plan to work on and ask for ongoing help to keep you on track. Ask for gentle reminders when you’re unconsciously falling into old habits that are the opposite of what you want to do moving forward. This will reinforce new behaviors and help you turn them into new habits.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.