Leadership is tricky in any industry. In my time serving as a leader for various service companies and as a leadership coach for countless more, I’ve learned a lot the hard way. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve failed to follow through. During this time, I’ve come to realize how critical it is to make sure you develop effective habits, routines and rituals and know the difference between them. Every time I see people (including myself) fall into this same trap over and over, I start to yell internally (maybe even externally, too).

My friends and fellow leaders, I don’t want you to fall into this same trap. I want you to be better than the “you” of yesterday, so let’s get a little clarity on this topic of ritual vs. routine and how to be the best leader possible.

Habits create change

I’m all about change. If you’ve followed me at all or read my previous articles, you’ve probably noticed I talk about change a lot. One of the key pieces of change to me is in building the right kind of habits.

We make a million decisions per day — whether we realize it or not — and the truth is, we don’t realize most of the decisions we make. Our subconscious mind makes them for us. It’s in these unconscious decisions where our habits lie.

In our personal lives, these may be things like brushing our teeth, starting the day with coffee or ending the day by writing in a journal. For leaders, these may be things like greeting everyone in the office or on-site that day, telling a customer to have a good day when you leave or even saying a small prayer when you open the breaker box of an 80-year-old home on the day you need to install a new A/C unit.

Habits are things you do just because you always do them. They aren’t inherently good or bad; they just are. But truth be told, they can be very good or very bad. Working out every morning? Good habit! Drinking four beers with every lunch? Bad habit!

Good leadership is about understanding and developing these habits in ways that benefit you and your team.

Habits as routines

It’s no big secret that leaders need good habits. It’s like one of the world’s worst-kept secrets. You go to the doctor, and they want you to lose weight or cut out sugary foods, and you go:

“Yeah, duh. That sounds great, but it’s so hard to do.”

If you go online to the workout and health “gurus,” it all boils down to sticking with a program long enough for it to become a habit, something you just do every day. It sounds easy, but we all know how hard it actually is.

This was something I struggled with as a leader for a long time. I’d stick with something for a while and feel good, but it would eventually fall off. For me, one of the habits I tried to build was sharing more of the “way” we were implementing new systems and new language in our customer service and upselling products on our service calls. My mind’s always going too fast, and I’d keep just telling my team to do it without letting them know why we were changing. In the end, it made the process less effective.

Over time (and many years), I realized the missing piece of the puzzle was around habits and how they turn into either routines or rituals. This, my friends, is critical to understand.

A habit, good or bad, becomes a routine when you do it without much thought. When you commit an act without attaching emotional and mindful significance to it, it’s a routine.

Routines rarely last.

If you don’t have personal, serious buy-in when something else happens or stops the routine from activating, you won’t do it. Sure, you know journaling and reflecting will make you a better leader because Kenny told you it would. So you start doing a little bit every day after work because Kenny said so.

Well, the first Friday when you want to go fishing right after work, you’ll skip the journal. You just will. It’s not important enough; you don’t have enough energy in the process. I’m not accusing you of anything; it’s just the way it is.

Some routines stick around long enough, and they seem pretty solid, but you’ll never get enough out of them to step into new levels of greatness unless you make your habit and routine a ritual.

Rituals change the game

A ritual is a habit that means something to you. You do it every time because you believe with energy and conviction that you must do it, and the benefits of the ritual are game-changing.

Yes, the word “ritual” often has a religious aspect to it. I’m not talking about that, but the religious importance of many “rituals” also speaks to how much energy and devotion we need to give our powerful and good habits, too.

In a ritual, you believe you need to reflect and journal on the day because you know it’ll make you a stronger and more aware leader. You commit with energy and dire belief that you need to lose weight or cut out sugary foods because you’ll feel better and live better and live longer!

Now, when you have a fishing trip coming up, or your friends are going out for donuts, you’ll have the power in your ritual to say:

No! I’m sticking with this habit/ritual because it’s something I need to do.

This is where your good habits last, grow stronger and power up your leadership. Get out a notebook, piece of paper or computer — something to brainstorm habits you need to develop to make your team and business stronger. It could be anything, including:

  • Communicate why changes are important more clearly;
  • Be consistent about offering positive feedback;
  • Make an effort to connect more personally with your team;
  • Build time to reflect on the day; and
  • Control negative reactions to stressful situations better.

Now, write or think (but writing’s better) about why these things are so important. Get yourself emotionally invested in building these habits and make them rituals for yourself. It’ll change your leadership in powerful ways.