Many leaders try on new behaviors as part of their self-improvement. These behaviors form a vulnerable veneer that easily strips away during times of stress. If the leader is resilient, they may treat the moment as a bump on the road. If less so, they may abandon the new behavior. Direct reports, peers, and bosses may see the old actions return and tell themselves the leader was never serious about improving. They may become frustrated, disengaged, and cynical.

What can we do to navigate the bumps, make them temporary, and return to the path of improvement?

Decide what you know for sure. There is power in making your values explicit and creating tenets or principles that describe, for you and others, what demonstrating those values looks like in use. A CEO and I were faced with a difficult decision, arguing our options. I pointed at the values poster on the wall of his office and asked, “Are these real for us or not?” We then, thoughtfully, chose the option that demonstrated our values.

Choose the hills you want to climb. Our egos make every challenge seem worthy of a fight. The illusion is that everything is equally important and urgent. It is not. Consider the cost of doing nothing in a situation. What will happen 10 minutes from now if I do nothing? One week? One month? One year? Will this even be a thing in a week, or is it a storm in a teacup? If doing something is warranted, consider when is the best time to confront it. Charging the hill in your CEO’s monthly staff meeting may not be the most effective strategy. A one-to-one meeting with the CEO creates safety for both of you, lowers the risk of shaming and blaming, and allows time and space for other answers and possibilities. Importantly, it also provides the opportunity to improve your relationship with the CEO or other person in the room.

Take the mirror test. Tell the story to yourself in front of a mirror.

  1. Does the telling create a sense of relief?
  2. Does it create an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach?
  3. Does it align with your values?
  4. Does it serve others?
  5. Are you proud of your decision?
  6. Can your chosen approach be improved?
  7. Are you asking enough questions of others?
  8. Do you feel the need to be right or to get it right?
  9. Do you know what you want from this discussion or decision?

Apologize. When we leave our desired path for a moment, take the time to apologize. “I’m sorry. I will try to do better in the future.” Stop. And then, moving forward, get back on the path of practicing your new behavior.

Let go of perfection. Perfection is not a standard for people. It is a construct that keeps us stuck. Shoot for progress instead. You will make mistakes. You will stumble. You will be 100% human. Get up, apologize if needed, and move on. Give yourself space and grace to be imperfect—progress, not perfection.

Ask for help. Share the things you are trying to improve with others. Ask them for their candid insights into what you can do better to achieve your goal. Offer to help them with their behavioral improvements. Offer them doable ideas that focus on the future, not the past. Asking for help is heroic.