Winning Habits of Highly Effective Leaders

Last week, we revisited the topic of self-care and how it can help address burnout, as part of our blog series on the topic. 

Leaders will perform at their best, on all levels, when they integrate essential self-care into their lives and it is not just a “nice to have”, it is a must-have to thrive in times like today and in the future. 

This week, we are going to keep building on this concept of self-care by looking at winning habits that separate highly effective leaders from average ones.  

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 their style and the way they think and show up for others.  

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 to us.

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 in combination with a healthy self-care routine so you can perform at your best and live the best life possible.

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 must 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 it 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 at each moment, you would never get anything done.

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

Habits free up processing power, eliminating some lower-priority 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 triggered by a certain context or specific environment, bad ones can inflict a lot of damage if they go unnoticed or corrected.

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 refine 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. 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 our 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 cannot 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.

With 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

It’s no surprise that the most effective leaders are also excellent communicators. The best leaders have developed communication habits centered on the ability to listen. Yes, they certainly know how to talk and inspire people with their words, but they have also built the habit of active listening. By being in the moment and focusing 100% of your attention on the person who is speaking, vs. waiting for your turn to speak will start to change the way people see you and the impact you have on them.  

#2 – Lift Others Up 

Regularly recognizing the efforts of others is one of the best ways for leaders to develop employee engagement within their respective team and organization. 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 focused 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 – Speak the Truth

Effective leaders speak 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 the truth in a kind and humane manner. It’s all about integrity, and integrity is built on a series of habits and decisions. Self-aware leaders recognize when they are being honest with themselves and others. 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 or others look good.  

#4 – Be Vulnerable & Humble

Ineffective leaders sometimes get into the habit of assuming they need to know it all, or that they always have all the answers. This can be a common trap for leaders and one that can be very difficult to escape once this type of thinking or mindset sets in. Thankfully, it is possible for leaders to develop the habit of being vulnerable and admitting they do not have all the answers.  You are not expected to have all the answers by the way. It’s our job to bring people together to collaborate and develop ideas and solutions together.  

#5 – Ask for Help When Needed

Most leaders I meet take pride in what they do, and sometimes their pride can get in the way of asking for help when needed. It might not be common practice for you to ask for assistance when you are stuck or require support. 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 of asking for support when they recognize that it’s needed to move forward.

Ready to Develop Better Habits for Your Leadership?

These simple leadership habits we have provided can take your leadership to a whole new level, but you must be ready to change and willing to do the work.

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

I would love to hear from you, so please call me directly at 416-560-1806 or send me an email at

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