Joshua Spodek is author of Leadership Step by Step and host of the Leadership and the Environment podcast. An adjunct professor at NYU and leadership coach and workshop leader for Columbia Business School, Joshua currently lives in New York City.


Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?

When my first venture nearly went bankrupt in the early 2000s recession, the investors squeezed me out of the company I co-founded. I had little experience in business.

What brought me out of it was that I needed to pay my mortgage and eat, so I had to get a job. Eventually, I realized I preferred starting projects, so went to business school to improve my business skills.

I learned a lot about trust and the importance of understanding people as individuals, not just counterparts to business deals. What motivates them? Why? Things like that.

I also grew closer to my family, especially my mother.

I launched the Leadership and the Environment podcast to address the hopelessness I feel and see arising from the gap between what people say they value in the environment and what they do. Everyone wants clean air, land, and water, but almost no American meaningfully reduces their pollution.

I created the podcast to lead people to live by their environmental values, not just talk. Too many people stop with awareness, education, tips, and other things that don’t reduce their pollution. They throw up their hands, saying, “If I change but no one else does my actions won’t matter.” Abandoning your values, following nobody in particular, is the opposite of leadership.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

People read and recommend more books, video, and other passive or analytical approaches to improving their leadership skills. I see that advice like advising people to read books to improve at playing piano or a sport.

If you want to develop physical strength, reading and watching videos about lifting weights won’t do it. If you want to develop the social and emotional skills to lead yourself and others, reading and watching videos on leadership won’t do it.

Have you ever noticed how many TED talks there are on leadership, yet none on how to play piano? That’s because we know how to teach piano—by practice. We didn’t know how to teach leadership, hence people grasping at straws. I wrote my book to change that.

What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?

The importance of experience and activity in learning, as opposed to reading, listening, analyzing, and other traditional educational techniques.

Great leaders and other successful people—by whatever definition of success you want—rarely emerged from following the worn traditional academic path, which I followed through to a PhD.

Greatness and success tend to result from activity based on solid social and emotional skills, not just intellectual knowledge.

What is your morning routine? 

I wrote up my morning routine at length here.

What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?

Beyond the value of any habit is the sidcha, which stands for Self-Imposed Daily Challenging Healthy Activity. A sidcha is more than a habit. Brushing your teeth and reading the paper are habits. They don’t change your life.

A sidcha changes your life. My sidchas include

  • Twice-daily calisthenics (over 100,000 burpees so far)
  • Writing to my blog every day (almost 3,000 posts so far)
  • Getting out of bed and making it within one minute every morning
  • Cold showers
  • Picking up a piece of litter from the street each day
  • Avoiding packaged food

Each practice has improved my life, but I think of them more as implementations of the sidcha concept.

What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?

I wish I were more efficient and productive. I don’t think I waste time less than the average person.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?

Feeling overwhelmed or unfocused tends to happen when I have a lot to do. I tend to make lists, as many people do. When things get difficult, I try to figure out the most important thing on the list I can do.

I won’t lie, though. When I feel most overwhelmed is when I procrastinate the most. I wish I didn’t.

What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?

The Tao Te Ching led to many changes in my views and behavior. I’ve never been able to explain why. Few books are like it. It’s part poetry, part prose. I can read the whole thing in a couple hours, yet spend years on one section. I read it and find that it influences me by provoking thought, but not by explaining things or presenting facts or argument. The main results are improving leadership and influence while creating calmness, understanding, and empathy. I recommend Ron Hogan’s translation for its accessibility.

I have to mention Leadership Step by Step, my book. Nearly every other book, video, and resource on leadership is “leadership appreciation.” If you want to become an artist, art appreciation courses only help you appreciate others. You have to practice to become an artist.

Same with leadership. Most people reading these words want to lead, not just appreciate others’ leadership. You have to practice leadership to become a leader. Leadership Step by Step leads readers through exercises to become leaders. I developed the course it’s based on because I saw nothing like it. I wrote the book because of the results my students got.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?

The great dancer and choreographer Martha Graham’s description of mastery applies to leadership as well as dance:

The dancer is realistic. His craft teaches him to be. Either the foot is pointed or it is not. No amount of dreaming will point it for you. This requires discipline, not drill, not something imposed from without, but discipline imposed by you yourself upon yourself. Your goal is freedom. But freedom may only be achieved through discipline. In the studio you learn to conform, to submit yourself to the demands of your craft, so that you may finally be free.