The 5 Habits that Separate Great Leaders from the Rest

As human beings, we love to think we are always in control and that our in-the-moment decisions are based on logic, reason and well-developed thought processes. This is especially true for leaders, who are constantly flexing between choosing, deciding, thinking and planning. But the truth is that we have less control over our actions and situations than we might think if we lack self-awareness.

The reality is that humans are creatures of habit. In fact, about 45% of reported activities, according to studies, are based not on conscious decision-making processes, but by ingrained habits. In other words, about half of our actions are not even based on conscious decisions; they are based on habits that have become second nature.

Think about this for a second – all the control you think you have over your life and leadership is largely an illusion. Much of the time, you are not thinking or deciding; you are falling back on behaviors based on habits, and those behaviors may or may not be conducive to what you are attempting to accomplish as a leader.

That is why it is so critical to develop solid, grounded and effective leadership habits.

What Is a Habit?

In my view, a habit can be defined as an automatic response to a situation or event. Basically, habits allow us to preserve the energy we use for mental processing and decision making. They are kind of like mental computer programs that run in the background of our minds, allowing us to take full advantage of the brain’s processing power.

Humans evolved habits as automatic responses to different environments and contexts, and without the development of these automatic habits, we might not have been able to survive as a species. If humans had to be aware of the countless small decisions that have to be made every day, we would become immobilized and unable to take effective action.

Think about your morning routine. It is hugely important to how your day progresses, but is probably made up of a series of habits. You don’t process every single aspect of getting dressed, making coffee, reading the news or making the familiar drive to your office. If you had to weigh the pros and cons of every single one of these actions or decisions in each moment, you would never get anything done.

The human brain is a highly efficient processing device. It works to ensure that you make high-quality decisions, but tradeoffs are often necessary in the interest of making decisions quickly. That’s where habits come in to play.

Habits free up processing power, eliminating decisions and making more mental resources available to use on more important, unique decisions. It is basically like outsourcing your decision-making to the “Department of Habits.” Then, habits work their automatic magic, for better or for worse.

Yes, habits are our friends and provide a place of comfort. As you know, however, not all habits are good ones, and because they act automatically when they are triggered by a certain context or specific environment, bad ones can inflict a lot of damage if they go unnoticed or uncorrected.

What Does This Have to Do with Leadership?

The short answer: Almost everything.

Here’s what I mean: When people talk about effective leadership, what they’re really referring to is a set of habits that create excellent conditions for success to occur. Ultimately, leadership is less about personality and charisma as it is about the habits leaders develop and lean on day after day.

Effective leaders are good at what they do because they have developed exceptional leadership habits. Ineffective leaders have developed bad habits. But more importantly, they have failed to notice their habits, so they never get a chance to correct their behaviors or decision-making processes.

I believe ineffective leaders can transform. Good leaders can become great ones. And each moment represents a new chance to practice and develop positive leadership habits.

First, it is crucial to be able to notice one’s habits. Self-awareness and mindfulness are key characteristics of great leadership. Mindfulness acts as a check on bad habits that become automatic, and your self-awareness supersedes the unconscious nature of habit, allowing you to make adjustments that bring your actions more in line with your values.

Self-awareness is a characteristic that can be developed through mindfulness practices such as meditation. If you have been paying attention to what I’ve been writing, you know I am a strong proponent of mindfulness. To me, it is the key to excellent leadership because it allows leaders to notice and evaluate their actions in the moment. Mindfulness gives leaders special access to the inner workings of their minds, allowing them to make adjustments that would not be possible otherwise. So, when it comes to changing leadership habits, it all must begin with mindfulness.

If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to read my recent blog series on mindfulness. Doing so will give you a significant advantage as you learn more about how to develop strong leadership habits:

Why Is Mindfulness Essential for Leadership?

3 Mindfulness Mistakes – And How Leaders Can Avoid Them

What Can You Learn from These 7 Mindful Leaders?

How Mindfulness Helps Leaders Outside Their Organizations

Learning Grounded, Mindful Leadership with Leaders Edge

The 5 Essential Leadership Habits

Great leadership habits will not be developed overnight. You need to work on implementing them, developing them and making them automatic and habitual. Of course, you also need to be aware of the habits you hold that might be counterproductive so you can adjust or eliminate them altogether if they are not serving you or others best interest.

All that being said, I think it’s important to become familiar with the habits that seem to be common among the world’s best leaders. I have identified five leadership habits that separate great leaders from the rest. As you read through this list of habits, ask yourself whether you embody them, or if your existing habits are at odds with them.

#1 – Effective Communication

The most effective leaders I have encountered have all been master communicators. Notice that I didn’t say master orators, speakers or givers of orders. The best leaders have developed communications habits centered on the ability to listen. Yes, they certainly know how to talk and inspire people with their words. But they also have the habit of closing their mouths and opening their ears when others have things to say. This can be a very difficult habit for leaders to develop, but it is essential. Without the ability to communicate effectively, leaders never get very far in their careers.

#2 – Credit Where Credit Is Due

Regularly recognizing the efforts of others is one of the best ways for leaders to develop employee engagement within their respective organizations. Leaders do not always have the instinct to give credit to their people when it is deserved, so it must be developed into a habit. Leaders have the power to shift the spotlight to others, but they need to learn how to notice when it is trained too brightly on themselves. This allows them to develop the humility necessary to stand back and give out the appropriate credit to those who have truly made a difference.

#3 – Telling It Like It Is

Effective leaders don’t lie. They don’t spread false information or deal in deception. They tell the truth – to themselves and to others. They do not sugarcoat anything, and they do not feel the need to talk about themselves in overly flattering terms. They know themselves and their people well, and they are unafraid to speak their truth. It’s all about integrity, and integrity is really just a series of habits and decisions. Self-aware leaders recognize when they are being untrue. The best leaders develop a mindful habit of automatically going to the truth of a given situation instead of finding what feels like the “right” solution to make them look good.

#4 – Not Knowing It All

Ineffective leaders often get into the habit of assuming they know it all, or that they always have all the answers. This is a common trap for leaders and one that can be very difficult to escape. Thankfully, it is possible, with self-awareness, for leaders to develop the habit of being inquisitive. Being inquisitive expands a leader’s ability to recognize the times when they don’t have the answers, and they are unafraid of seeking clarification or answers to their questions.

#5 – Seeking Support, When Needed

Leaders have a lot of pride in themselves and what they do. But sometimes their pride can get in the way of the need to ask for help. It does not always feel natural for leaders to ask for assistance when they get stuck or require support. However, the most powerful and effective leaders understand that there is always more to learn. They seek out coaching and inspiration from those who have the wisdom to help them improve. And they make a habit out of asking for support when they recognize that it’s needed to move forward.

Ready to Develop Better Habits for Your Leadership?

The good leadership habits I listed here can take your leadership to a whole new level, but you have to be ready to change and willing to accept that you can grow your potential.

I invite you to stay tuned to this space in the coming weeks as I dive more deeply into the subject of leadership habits. I will explain in more detail how you can develop better habits, and how you can use your mindfulness and self-awareness to hone the habits that will take you to a new level. I will also spend some time discussing the challenges we face with technology in terms of developing good habits.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, but I’m excited to share what I know with you, so stay tuned!

What questions do you have about leadership habits? What are your thoughts on the habits I’ve listed here? What bad leadership habits have you noticed and changed within yourself?

I would love to hear from you, so please leave me a comment or send me an email at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca.

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