A lot of experienced and new leaders ask me what leadership habits can improve their chances of success? In this guide, we’ll explore a well known set of habits that all leaders can learn from.
There are 7 leadership habits that contain many of the typical characteristics of successful leaders. These habits can be seen in Steven Covey’s, “The 7 habits of highly effective people.” They demonstrate that successful people (including leaders) adopt the following:
- They take initiative and take control of what they can influence. (“Be Proactive”)
- They focus on goals. (“Begin with the End in Mind”)
- They set priorities to achieve their goals efficiently. (“Put First Things First”)
- They only win when others win. (“Think Win/Win”)
- They communicate. (“Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”)
- They cooperate and problem solve. (“Synergize”)
- They rest, retreat, reflect and repair their deficiencies. (“Sharpen the Saw”)
Of course, there are many smaller leadership habits that you could define in successful leaders. The truth is, they more than likely fit within one of these 7 habits, but more on this later in the guide. First, let’s explore these 7 leadership habits.
- Leadership Habit 1: Being Proactive
- Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
- Habit 3: First Thing’s First
- Leadership Habit 4: Think Win / Win
- Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
- Habit 6: Synergize
- Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
- Other Leadership Habits & Where They Fit
- Definition of a Habit
Leadership Habit 1: Being Proactive
This is the first of the leadership habits and it’s the first of Covey’s 7 habits. It consists of being less reactive to situations and more proactive. This is the foundation to all the other habits and It’s the platform to success, because it’s about knowing you and working on your own thoughts.
Most unsuccessful people complain about things that they can’t control:
- It’s not my fault
- The weather is bad
- I went to a horrible school
- It’s my genetics
- It’s the government’s fault
- I can’t get a break
It’s easy to blame everything else. But the point is, the more we blame things that we can’t control, the more we are stuck in a rut and do nothing about improving our lives and situation.
On the contrary, proactive and successful people take the bull by the horns. They realise that things happen, but they don’t get caught up in factors that are out of their control. Instead, they focus on the aspects that they have an influence over.
Covey called this the circle of influence. Be in control of this, and you’ve got a great platform to take control of your life, career, situation, emotions, relationships and wealth.
The things you can control are some of the following:
- Your education and learning
- Your attitude and the way you deal with setbacks
- Your enthusiasm
- Your habits
- The hobbies and pastime activities you undertake
Being proactive means you focus on you, and improve how you see the world, and how you think and feel.
Marcus Aurelius once said, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you’ll find strength.”
The first step is to go from reactive blame, to proactive action.
Start by changing what you say and take responsibility. Here are some examples:
- From: I can’t do anything about it, to: There must be a way; let’s think about some possibilities.
- From: That’s just me, to: I can change the way I am.
- From: She gets me so angry, to: I can choose how I’ll let her affect me.
- From: I have to, to: I will choose.
It’s very important that the words you choose are positive to help you get your mindset ready for change. It’s also important because as a leader, you need to reframe your employees’ conversations. If you hear negative and reactive words, help them reframe them so you can put a positive spin on things. We’ve written a guide on reframing, to help you get started.
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
Beginning with the end in mind means to look to the future. Successful leaders know what they want. They know where they are going, and they know what their true north is.
A true north is an end goal, which touches your entire life. It represents who you are and what resonates with your heart. It covers your career, relationships, life, spirituality and happiness.
It is your mission statement.
Imagine sitting on your rocking chair at 80 years old. When you look back at your life, how do you feel?
If you honestly haven’t fulfilled your dreams, then it’s time to change.
Many successful people chase money, fame and material things, to eventually achieve them but end up filing for devorce, losing everything, going broke, or even committing suicide.
The truth is, they didn’t choose their true north – a well rounded representation of themselves.
How do you want to be remembered? What legacies do you want to leave? How would you like to make a difference? These should all pass the rocking chair test. They allow you to create a mission that fits with you and your entire life.
Successful people know this to be true and follow this principle every day.
Habit 3: First Thing’s First
You have the power to change who you are. But in order to do this, you need to change the way you act. This third habit is about prioritising your tasks.
The golden rule here is to never let your most important priorities fall victim of the least important ones. Successful leadership habits are built on organisation and being proactively in control of time.
Without this planning, you leave yourself exposed to the reactions and demands of outside influences – none of which contribute to your main goals and direction.
One day leads to the next, and before you know it, years have passed. You are no closer to achieving your true north, as you bounce from reaction to reaction, all influenced by other external events.
Putting first things first, means putting your important priorities first.
What are important priorities? Well, if you have your mission statement and goals created in habit 2, then you can define the priorities based on whether the tasks in front of you today or this week, help move you towards that end goal or not.
Covey created the Covey Priority Matrix to help identify what’s good, bad or indifferent.
The truth is that most people confuse the important with urgent. Something urgent is easier to see.
Something that is important is trickier to identify.
Successful leaders focus on planning, avoiding pitfalls, creating and cultivating opportunities, developing relationships, leading with purpose, and getting enough rest and recreation in equal portion.
Don’t pack out your plan with too much work. There needs to be equilibrium in order to help propel you towards your balanced mission (created in step 2).
Planning tasks that fall within quadrants 1 and 2 is where you are at your most effective. These activities link to your mission and must be scheduled first. Doing this every day, allows you to create the platform to make your vision a reality. It requires a system (the Covey Matrix) and discipline to make it a habit.
Give each area of your life an equal amount of time and you’ll soon start feeling fulfilled energised in your pursuit for being th best person you can be.
Leadership Habit 4: Think Win / Win
Great leaders and successful people alike, focus on building relationships with win/win outcomes.
The old adage that there’s only one winner in business is a fallacy.
This habit is all about exercising interpersonal leadership, to ensure that all parties that you’re involved with, benefit. This should be reflected:
- At work
- In relationships
- In your Marriage
Win / lose relationships provide losers. Losers mean that bad feelings are a result and sometimes enemies form.
Highly effective leaders and people value relationships and know that bringing people with them is the right thing to do. They multiply their allies and not their enemies.
Competition is not really a thought in their psyche. The view that we can both come together and benefit, even if we are competitors, is a very powerful viewpoint and it’s enacted by the most successful people around us.
Naturally, this is hard to perfect with everyone and every situation, but actively looking for people to help and support so you both win is a very humble, responsible and honourable thing to do, which can mean benefits for everyone.
Look for opportunities to work with people and put aside any judgements or biases you may have. Think about how you can both benefit from the task at hand, rather than one person getting all the rewards.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
This habit forms the foundation of excellent communication and listening skills. There’s a saying that you have two ears and one mouth, so use them in that proportion. Good Leaders do this with abundance.
Whereas successful people listen intently for meaning and comprehension, others try to compete in many conversations:
- I need to get my point of view across
- You are wrong and i’ll show you why
- I need to win this argument
- I need to be seen as the leader or the authoritative figure
Because they compete in the conversation, or feel they have to, those that are not effective communicators tend to listen shallowly to what’s being said, whilst most of their attention goes on what they are preparing to say in response.
As a result, they don’t truly comprehend the conversation, and so miss key points, getting stuck in their own filters and points of view.
These examples show that if we are in the competitive viewpoint, we can’t win. Instead, if we accept and look for win/win relationships (habit 4), we should be able to step back and just listen to the other person and understand with accuracy, what they are saying and meaning.
This means, that we are happy to listen, even if:
- They have a totally different viewpoint than you
- You think they are wrong in what they are saying
- They are being competitive with you and want to get their point across
- You are wary of their intentions
Seeking to understand means that you are truly listening to that person or people and taking in what they say. It means that you practice and have perfected active listening skills, and are present in the moment.
This forms the concept of empathic communication. You can also check out our guide on how to develop active listening in the workplace, using one golden rule, to start developing your skills to comprehend others conversations more effectively.
Successful leaders always put their judgements and views to one side. They calm their mind and focus on the conversation that they are engaged in, so they can totally understand it. Only when they have understood fully, they then discuss things further.
Habit 6: Synergize
Imagine three people are trying to pick apples from a tree. They are all too short to reach the lowest apple. What should they do?
The obvious answer is to work together to pick the apples as a team. They may choose to leverage one person above the shoulders of the other, while the third person collects the apples as they get picked.
This is a very simple example of synergy. It means that you must think positively about problems and challenges and then look for collaboration and teamwork, to overcome them.
The fact is, there’s a team behind every successful person.
- A boxer has a team of sparring partners, trainers, a nutritionist, a manager, physio, a promoter
- An athletics champion has a physio, nutritionist, and coach
- A Formula 1 driver has hundreds of engineers behind them
Tackling problems on your own means we have one side of view – our side. The best problems are overcome by using different people from different disciplines and viewpoints, working together.
Here, the best answers are those that would never have been thought of if the problem was tackled individually.
The synergistic steps are simply to Listen, reflect, respond and cooperate.
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
A man walks through the woods and hears a woodcutter cursing to himself. He wanders over and asks what the problem is. The woodcutter replies, “I have too many trees to cut down and the saw is blunt.”
“Why don’t you sharpen your saw?” He asks.
The Woodcutter abruptly responds, “I don’t have time.” The truth is, a blunt saw makes the work harder, tedious, tiresome and unproductive.
Highly successful people and leaders, take time to sharpen their tools, which ultimately are:
- Their bodies and health
- Their soul and spirit
- Their minds
- Their heart
They become sharp and optimised in all areas of their life.
Great leaders often adopt the following techniques to create the energy and balance they need in their lives:
- Exercise everyday to have an abundance of health, endurance and strength
- Eat healthily so they are optimal in health and energy levels
- They get enough rest to ensure that are on point the next day
- They meditate and reflect and reduce stress
- Listen to music to relax
- Read literature to broaden their minds and rest
- Learn new skills to develop their capabilities
- Spend quality time with their loved ones to recharge and improve their lives
Most people believe that they are resting when they watch too much TV or play video games.
The truth is that they are not attending to their true selves and merely absorbing more drama and other people’s values, and ideals that dull the mind.
Sharpening the saw means you’re creating an abundance of energy to live happily and content, all in view of your true north principles.
Try to develop your emotional connections with other people. Communicate and listen and don’t be demanding. Stimulate your mind and enhance your brain. Try to make others better off in everything you do.
By doing so, you would have developed leadership habits that transform the lives of those you lead and yours too.
Let’s look at why these 7 habits are largely the only ones you really need to perfect.
Other Leadership Habits & Where They Fit
Looking at the search term “Leadership Habits”, the top two articles have differing opinions on what leadership habits make a great leader.
Redbooth identifies 7 leadership habits that are a must for leaders. They are:
- They practice what they preach
- They value team members
- They are highly organised
- They take responsibility
- Accept failure on the path to success
- They embrace soft skills
Equally, on the same search page, Forbes has 12 leadership habits that excellent leaders possess:
- They have courage and can make difficult decisions
- They are effective communicators
- They are generous
- They are humble
- Self aware
- They treat others as they want to be treated
- They are passionate
- Enthusiastic towards their goals
- They have a sense of purpose
I argue that all of the above (and more) can be placed in one of the 7 successful habits categories.
So, if you learn and perfect these 7 habits that we’ve discussed, you’ll naturally develop a wider set of traits and additional leadership habits. This will make you even more effective.
For instance, being accountable, means you have to be clear on what you want to achieve and then be proactive, taking responsibility to get it done. (That’s habit 1 of the 7 habits model – Being proactive).
Being highly organised is habit 3 (First things first). To be successful, we all need a great planning system, so we are doing the right things first.
Want to improve your passion and energy? Well, ensure you sharpen the saw and re-energise every day, learn new skills and work on yourself (habit 7).
You must also create a mission statement that resonates with you and your inner self. By meditating and visualising your goals and successes, it will bring you additional energy and belief (Habits 1 & 7) .
Soon, you’ll be so infectious with enthusiasm and positivity, that it will naturally rub off on those around you when you work with them (habit 6).
Want to be more self aware? Practice mindfulness and work on understanding what makes you tick (Habit 1). What are your emotional triggers? How do you come across to other people? How do you want to come across? These are all habit 1 questions to be answered.
Spend time to be in the present when you communicate (habit 5), so listen intently and answer after others have spoken.
Take time to reflect on your victories and improvement opportunities (habit 7).
Instead of trying to implement dozens of different habits, just focus on these 7.
Learn them, practice them every day.
As you get better, you’ll develop skills that will last you a lifetime.
Think of the 7 habits of highly successful people as being both the habits and action steps to enable you to be a successful leader and develop your leadership habits.
But there is one last question. How long does a new habit take to form? Well, here’s the science behind it.
Definition of a Habit
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
A habit then, is something that is pretty autonomous in what you do. You don’t have to think much about it. It just happens.
The reason: You’ve done it so many times that it is now a deep rooted skill that seemlessly happens.
In order for an activity to be a habit, it has to be practiced repeatedly until it becomes the norm.
With regards to leadership habits, they should follow the same suit. They are only habits if you are practicing them all the time, if not regualrly.
Studies suggest that it can take quite a while for habits to form. Phillipa Lally and her research team in 2009, identified that it can take between 18 to 259 days to create a new habit. This range is based on each individual and the complexity of the skill.
Unsurprisingly, they confirm that the more we practice, the shorter this window is.
So, if you haven’t learned and mastered these 7 leadership habits yet, then roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath and be prepared to work on implementing them over the best part of the next 12 months.
Related Questions to Leadership Habits
What are bad leadership habits? The most damaging leadership habits that hold leaders back are possibly the following:
- A lack of emotional intelligence – not understanding their own emotions and how they come across, as well as how they influence others. This can cause serious breaches in confidence, trust and respect
- Having no clear direction and goals in their life – they often react to daily pressures and never really make any headway
- Not actively seeking to develop their team members – so they become stagnant in their roles, losing passion and commitment
- Not addressing problems and fixing them when they arise – problems build up, and leaders must be brave to overcome them and fix them so they don’t happen again. They also must encourage teamwork to fix them, which we touched on in the article above). If not, then leaders and their teams constantly run around firefighting to overcome problems that keep returning. This then creates stress, conflict and a lack of time to do anything else
- Managing from their office. Teams need to communicate and work together. Leaders should be walking the business and coaching their teams, not leaving them to get on with things with no support from them. Lack of support and coaching leaves teams feeling isolated. Respect and commitment for their leader then drains quickly