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21 Powerful Habits & Traits of Highly Effective Leaders

Updated: June 3, 2018

Leadership is critical to coordinating priorities and tasks for any project that requires more than one person. From individual teams of a few people to an organization of thousands of employees, leaders provide the coordination and social lubricant to keep projects on task and within budget. What makes leadership highly effective can be summarized by breaking it down into a list of habits and traits. We’ve pulled together a list of 20 leadership qualities that companies can start cultivating today.

1. Practice a Better Version of the Golden Rule

The first rule for building effective relationships with team members and peers is to treat them the way they would like to be treated. This takes the classic golden rule and updates it with the recognition that people are motivated differently. If you’re a gregarious person who’s fine with being the center of attention, you may overlook the discomfort of a team member when you give them public praise. Why would it bother them, you might ask yourself? Their personality may be different than yours. They may prefer to receive your praise in private or among their team members rather than in full view of an entire department. Highly effective leaders learn what motivates and demotivates different personalities and adjust their behavior accordingly. Instead of treating others the way you would like to be treated, it’s more effective to treat others the way they would like to be treated.

2. Become Aware of Your Own Personality

Along those same lines, becoming self-aware makes leaders more effective just as much as being aware of others does. People in leadership roles are scrutinized more closely than others in a group, even though they are as human as anyone else. They may overlook their own weak points or not even recognize habits that cause friction with their subordinates. This is because we all tend to evaluate ourselves in a brighter light than others. To be effective, you’ll need to become aware of yourself more so than you would as a team member because your ability to connect with others plays an important part in the team’s success. When you do identify weaknesses or incompatibilities between your personality and your team, you can find strategies to compensate for them. It’s one way to get out of the way of your team’s success.

3. Don’t Let Confidence Turn into Arrogance

Confidence is an important leadership trait because it helps a team trust that you know what you are doing. If you openly doubt yourself or the chances of a plan’s success, you will infect the team with those same doubts. Confidence silences those natural doubts unless they really need to be addressed. This helps a team focus on the tasks they’ve been given and achieve their goals. Arrogance, on the other hand, can cause a team to lose its focus because a leader refuses to consider the possibility they may be wrong. Pair arrogance with poor decisions, and you’ll have a team with low morale because it feels powerless to succeed with someone at the helm who refuses to solve problems. Even a successful CEO who displays arrogance will lower an organization’s effectiveness because of the political conflicts that go unresolved. Stay humble and keep doubts the team doesn’t need to hear to yourself, and you’ll find the sweet spot of confident leadership.

4. Find Solutions to Problem, Not Blame for Failures

It’s always important to discover how a team missed a deadline or failed to achieve a goal so it won’t be repeated in the future, but it’s seldom productive to assign blame for failures after the fact. Not only does it damage the morale of the people involved, but it will encourage the entire team to avoid taking risks for fear of the same happening to them. You want your team to find the best way to solve problems and to facilitate that process. Effective executives treat every unsuccessful project as a lesson learned for the next time. In this way, the process the organization follows will continuously improve. When solutions are found for recurring problems, the team will feel confident that the company's leadership can handle whatever problems happen in the future.

5. Build Effective Relationships

Effective executives in any organization are aware of the political landscape their team operates within. One of their job responsibilities, whether explicitly stated or not, is to navigate that landscape and handle politics for their team. Team members shouldn’t run into political barriers that haven’t been negotiated before a project begins. To perform this part of a leadership role, executives build relationships inside and outside of their own team. Maintaining personal and professional relationships with key people that your team interfaces with will help you navigate thorny political issues when they arise.

6. Learn Effective Communication Techniques

Leaders find themselves communicating in many different situations. They conduct one-on-one meetings, lead team meetings, participate in organizational meetings, and give presentations in front of audiences, small and large. All of this is in addition to the normal colleague-to-colleague communication we all do every day. Effective leadership means you’ll need to get to know your strengths and weaknesses in difficult situations and develop techniques that work where improvement is needed. Mid-level executives are competent communicators, while high-level executives become experts in communication.

7. Leverage Your Team’s Subject Matter Experts

Leadership doesn’t require you to know all the answers when problems arise. Rather, you need to be skilled at guiding your team to the discovery of the best answer to a problem. There are different leadership styles that give teams varying levels of responsibility in decision-making, but the experts on a team should be the people leaders go to when they are unsure about an issue. This isn’t a sign of a lack of confidence; it’s a sign of good decision-making skills. You need to have the best set of options on the table before making a choice that will commit your team to a solution.

8. Be Resilient

Success isn’t guaranteed in life or in business. Leaders must deal with individual successes and failures with aplomb to build larger successes over time. That means recognizing how each success or failure fits into the big picture and having the emotional intelligence to model patience for their team. Every project exists in a context and stopping to put it into that context for the team is important. What might seem like a disaster to the people who are working on a project every day may be quickly forgotten when compared to bigger successes. Experience shows that extracting lessons learned will bring long term success down the road. Having this long-term vision is one way that you can model resilience in the face of adversity for your organization.

9. Finish Planning Before Beginning a Project

“Failure to plan is a plan to fail” is a common adage we all hear. It’s true, but the reality is that we rarely fail to plan. The problem is knowing when the planning stage is finished and when it’s safe to begin a project. If a plan doesn’t drill down into the details enough, a project can run into unforeseen issues that cause it to take longer than anticipated. It might even mean a goal isn’t achievable with the tools that were chosen. Effective leadership avoids these pitfalls of inadequate planning. There’s often a push to get out of the planning phase and begin work, and it’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen until a plan is ready.

10. Hold Yourself Accountable

A leader’s example is often mirrored in their team’s own behavior over time. This is something to consider when responding to day-to-day events, especially when things go wrong. One way to model good habits for your team is to hold yourself accountable for the failures that you’re responsible for. When your team sees you passing responsibility to themselves or onto other teams, it will cause them to avoid taking ownership of their own missteps. Holding yourself accountable for the team’s failures and giving out recognition when they succeed will create a team environment that leads to growth in the long run.

11. Avoid the Urge to Micromanage

This can be difficult for those who are experts in efficiency. They want to make sure their team doesn’t waste any effort, and so they get involved in designing detailed processes or prohibiting certain practices. In the short-term, this can lead to resentments if team members feel controlled or that their expertise is ignored. In the long-run, it will cause the team to avoid ownership of the process and not suggest improvements. To be effective, pay attention to the team’s productivity but trust that your workers know their jobs better than you do. It’s not your job to meddle in their processes but to facilitate process improvements.

12. Lead by Example Rather Than by Words

Good leadership is easier said than done. Be careful about what you say, especially when it comes to making promises to your team members or to higher management. When past statements fail to align with later decisions, the inconsistency can look like deception, whether it was intended or not. Effective leaders recognize that their reputation is a limited resource, so they guard it carefully by accomplishing goals rather than talking about accomplishing goals. The same holds true with integrity and handling team decisions. Give credit to others and own your failures, and your team will model that behavior in their own work.

13. Concentrate on Strengths to Remove Weaknesses

When it comes to enterprise management, leaders can focus their organizations on the strengths they already have to maximize results. Weak areas in an organization can drain its employees’ efforts, which in turn could be redirected to more productive work. Identify the expertise and mature processes the organization already possesses and build excellence around them. The orphaned service areas that don’t fit into that core expertise can then be safely removed. When those weak areas are gone, they’ll stop reducing the organization’s overall performance.

14. Hire the Best People You Can Find

For a team to be successful, its leader needs to ensure that the most talented people are brought on board. The leadership role handles politics and coordinates teamwork; it doesn’t mean being a technical expert. If a leader is the most knowledgeable person about the team’s projects, it’s a sign that they are not stepping back and letting the team be the experts. Hire people who are smarter, more knowledgeable, and more talented than yourself, and you’ll be well on your way to leading a successful team. You need expertise where the rubber meets the road to reach higher levels of excellence.

15. Get Up Early

Leaders often need to start work before their team to help with supporting tasks and planning. Getting up early can also maximize the number of productive hours in the day better than staying up late, which can turn into a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. When you get up earlier, you’ll hit the ground running sooner and reach your stride before the day is half over. Getting up an hour early every day also adds a cumulative amount of time to your week, month, and year that will translate into greater productivity and success if the time is put to good use.

16. Make Time for the Gym

Getting exercise is one way that a leader can put forward a good model for others in an organization. Not only is it part of a healthy lifestyle, but it’s also a proven way to keep your energy levels higher throughout the day. Daily exercise improves mood and reduces feelings of lethargy that can happen when you sit for long hours. Exercise can also be a time to clear your mind and think about the big picture, serving as a meditation break as much as a time for physical fitness.

17. Cultivate Good Sleeping Habits

Not getting enough sleep or having disturbed sleep patterns is turning out to be a major health risk, both physically and mentally. We all can relate to the lethargy and irritability that not getting enough sleep can cause, but extended periods of sleep deprivation can lead to depression and poor decision-making. The trap that we can fall into regarding sleep is trying to succeed by getting more work hours into every day. Cutting our sleep hours to accomplish that is a self-defeating strategy, though, because our effectiveness drops as we lose those hours of sleep. You may feel like you’re working harder, but you’ll be less productive. Effective leaders understand that sleep is essential and make sure they don’t fall behind.

18. Be a Lifelong Learner

You don’t need to be a polymath to be a good leader, but it helps to know about many different disciplines in life. A well-rounded education and continued learning can keep you creative in the face of unexpected challenges, and it gives you the ability to see problems from different angles. Successful entrepreneurs are often people who enjoy learning and treat it as a pastime. This makes digging into a subject they know little about a welcomed challenge rather than a chore to avoid. The skills required for lifelong learning, such as flexibility and humility, dovetail with those of leadership, too.

19. Make Smart Bets

Risk can translate into higher returns, but those returns can be imaginary rewards that seldom are won. When you have an urge to take a risk, temper it with an objective analysis of the costs and benefits before committing to it. Sometimes we feel a course of action is risky because we aren’t sure if we can accomplish the goal, and sometimes it’s risky because we know things are likely to happen that will derail a plan. Experienced executives know how to evaluate different kinds of risks and choose the bets that are not as risky as they appear while refusing to take the bets that are unlikely to pay off.

19. Sweat the Details

Good decision-making skills rest on an accurate understanding of a problem and its potential solutions. A leader needs to let the experts on a team discover the solutions and understand problems in detail, but leadership also requires a deep enough understanding to make the right decisions. If you lose sight of what is taking place because you’ve delegated all your responsibilities, you aren’t actually leading. Stay involved with the details and double-check what the team is doing to stay abreast of events. Sometimes a problem is waiting for leadership to show up and address it, which won’t happen if you are only thinking about the big picture.

20. Exercise Your Ability to Focus

One of the goals of leadership is to keep the organization on task. There’s a natural tendency for group efforts to break up into individual projects. A successful entrepreneur keeps everyone together and working productively throughout a project. This means that effective leadership requires the ability to focus on the key tasks of a project and stay focused on them for its duration. That focus translates into productive meetings, efficient processes, and excellence in the services provided by the company.

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