Book Review: The Power of Habit

I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg a few years ago and enjoyed it. There was one particular chapter of the book that stood out to me as a lesson in leadership.

In the book, Duhigg reviews how humans develop habits through a clear loop of cue-routine-reward. By understanding it and braking the cycle, humans can change their habits and take better control of them. He has a number of case studies in how the loop works and how great organizations hardwire successful habits into their teams.

My favorite example he uses to describe the habits of great organizations is Starbucks. As a quick aside, I have read both books by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about the company, Pour Your Heart Into It and Onward. He is a personal hero of mine and a leader that I greatly admire. I plan to review these books as well, but highly recommend you read them in the meantime.

Duhigg provides an example about how Starbucks teaches its employees “willpower habit loops” to handle difficult customer interactions. This is done through the habit loop by introducing routines for handling a cue of an unhappy customer. Training is done to help employees recognize an upset customer and develop the habits to respond to it effectively.

Habits like these help Starbucks maintain its reputation for exceptional service even when encountering adversity. As leaders, it is important for us to empathize with our employees and work with them to develop tools to encourage positive habits, especially as they related to customer service.

It’s hard to compete with Starbucks, but my favorite part of the book is in the chapter called, “The Golden Rule of Habit Change” (If you want to know what it is, you have to read the book). Duhigg devotes a significant portion of the chapter to former NFL football coach Tony Dungy who used habit as a key differentiator in his teams.

Dungy was different than most coaches. In a field where the best are known for working around the clock and sleeping on a cot in their offices during the season, Dungy routinely went home at a normal hour. His philosophy was based on his teams developing better playing habits than the competition.

Dungy was coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting in 1996, and despite reaching the playoffs in six of eight years, was fired. He was signed the following year by the Indianapolis Colts and reached the playoffs every year he coached with the team, winning at least 10 games in each season.

When his teams reached the playoffs though, they had a reputation for losing in an early round. What would happen is that, due to nerves, they would abandon their new habits and try to do everything as they did before they developed Dungy’s habits. But in the 2006 season, something changed, Tony Dungy’s son tragically committed suicide. The team came together to rally around their coach and agreed to let the good habits take over in the playoffs.

As you may already know, the Colts won the Super Bowl that year and Dungy became the first African American head coach to win the big game.

The lesson for leaders is twofold: First, working smarter is usually better than working harder. Dungy was an extremely successful coach and still had balance in his life. Second, it is not only important to help your teams develop good habits, but to also get them to trust that they will work in crucial moments. Sadly, it took a tragedy for the Colts to realize their potential. For our teams, we have to watch to make sure we are not victims of our own success by changing good new habits when we get into crunch-time situations.

If you have a good habit you would like to develop or a bad habit you would like to break either by yourself or with a team, this is a great book for you.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Teams rely on leaders to help them learn and develop good habits, especially when confronted with adversity. Our ability to teach those habits and get them ingrained in our teams require complete trust and belief in those new habits.

The Power of Habit is available for purchase on Amazon for $17 (does not include Prime discount)