We're all familiar with the idea that habits are important, that we are what we repeatedly do. My recent conversations with some of America's top business leaders have expanded upon that idea, that what we do should also reflect our purpose - our Why - and the values that guide us.

I've summed this up in a brief statement that I'll be featuring in my upcoming book on purpose-driven companies. In short, "Purpose Inspires. Values Guide. Habits Define." Purpose is about why we do what we do, Values are how we achieve purpose. Habits are what we do every day that reflects our purpose and values. Habits are purpose and values made visible.

So far, you're probably with me that these things are important. But where the rubber meets the road, is when talk gives way to action. Many people talk about values and caring for employees and customers and the like. But the question for leaders is, how do we translate these ideas into action?

Why Purpose, Values and Habits Matter

In "The Four Keys to Becoming a Talent Magnet Organization," Pamela Stroko, Vice President, HCM Transformation at Oracle, states that "what distinguishes talent magnet organizations from everyone else is that first and foremost, they live their values." They consult values such as trust/character, focus/priorities, engagement, and telling the truth, when making decisions. Values are lived through talent processes because they touch everyone in the organization. Values are the "who we are" and "what we aspire to become" and the talent practices and habits in the organization are the how.

The idea that values matter is tied to one of the defining tenets of positive psychology, which is that people seek intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They're seeking motivation from within - work they feel good about doing, rather than what they are rewarded for doing, or punished for not doing. What this means in the workplace is that it's important to people to do work they feel is valuable, to achieve purpose they feel is important, for a company whose values they find inspiring.

Habits then, are the actions we take every day to meet those ends. Study after study shows that today's employees aren't just looking for a paycheck or to avoid risk, they're looking for fulfillment, opportunities to advance and other, more personal drivers of engagement. Customers too, want to buy from companies that they feel reflect their own values. But people today are skeptical - it's not enough to espouse a purpose or claim a set of values. People need to "see it to believe it."

That's where habits come in.

Habits Change, Values and Purpose Don't

Some smart guy once said, "Purpose should last for 100 years." Values also should be relatively unchanging. So how do we adapt these unchanging ideas to fit a world where the only constant is change?

Through daily habits. Daily habits are how we live out our purpose and put values into practice. Our habits are really about integrating unchanging ideas into a world that is changing all around us. We can't change our purpose or values whenever a new technology or idea comes along, but we can change our habits to incorporate new ideas and new ways of doing things.

That's why one of the most important habits we can cultivate as leaders is to become expert navigators of change. Erica Dhawan, CEO of Cotential and a leadership strategist who is one of the world's leading authorities on "connectional intelligence," says that many of today's executives are in a personal quandary. "They don't know how to change or evolve on their own without learning from the insights and expertise of the younger generation," she says. "Yet, within the next ten years it will be clear that companies that value evolution will win, those with inclusive, connected cultures will win. Those that think of innovation as a one day event or a 'think tank group', will struggle."

Change is necessary as new people, technologies and ideas replace old ways of doing business. Companies that want to last for as long as their purpose must be able to adapt as new generations come on board, gain experience and eventually move into leadership. As leaders, we too must evolve and learn new ways of working and living in a changing world.

Putting Ideas into Action

One of the biggest challenges around values and purpose is that people have a hard time translating "big ideas" into specific actions and making those part of the culture over the long term. Says Jenn Lim, CEO & Co-Founder of Delivering Happiness and creator of the first Culture Books for Zappos, "The problem is that everyone has a set of values but once they launch these programs, after a short while everyone goes back to their old habits. So we have to change that."

Diana Chapman, co-founder and co-author of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, agrees. "We are in an age where we are moving away from intellectual concepts and more into how you practice them daily. For instance, one core value everyone talks about is transparency. But often, you find out that hardly anyone in the organization is practicing that. If transparency is a value then you also have to define and practice habits that reflect it. It's the difference between fact and story."

Four Essential Habits for Leaders

Connect company to individual purpose: One habit leaders need to cultivate to prevent the disconnection between values and habits, or ideas and action, is to consistently tie company purpose to individual purpose. "We need to define our purpose and values first, then figure out the behaviors that will turn those ideas into action," says Lim. "At the end of the day, people don't show up because of the paycheck, it's because they believe in the values and they're living out their purpose."

Make time for new Ideas: Dhawan identifies daily habits as one thing that will differentiate those who can evolve from those that cannot. Her recommendation? "Spend 10 minutes every day connecting with something new: get your news from a different source, go on twitter and follow 3 new people. Have a dinner once a month with someone who thinks differently than you."

Ask, don't tell: Another essential habit for leaders to develop is what Lim refers to as "Appreciative Inquiry." Says Lim, "rather than coming into a meeting with finger pointing or blame, open with a question. This helps to identify common ground people can build on, rather than putting a problem in a box no one wants to touch."

Communicate values through behavior: The fourth essential habit is to communicate your values every day. But remember that behavior is communication - you can't just talk values. "When core values fully known and understood employees are 39 times more likely to be fully engaged, says Ryan Estis, CEO of Ryan Estis & Associates. "Having a set of values and behaviors that are activated in an organization is beneficial within a workplace and can impact the work you do."

According to Estis, the habits we choose "are mechanisms for unlocking the potential and engagement that are locked within organizations and teams today." It's up to today's leaders to cultivate habits that close the gap between what we say we value and the actions we choose to undertake.