10 Leadership Habits that Work, for Me at Least

There are so many people writing about Leadership these days that it feels close to impossible to know who’s right about what Leadership really looks like – and who’s not.  There are tons of varying opinions, and most sound convincing.  It’s everywhere.  There’s Leadership advice from Ex-Navy Seals, Corporate CEO’s, Unicorn Start-Up Founders, Shark Tank Celebrities and from people like me that you’ve never heard of. Impressive people (author excluded) with amazing Leadership experiences and perspectives.  

Can they all be right, even if they don’t agree?

Anything’s possible.  

While I enjoy reading the books, I also wonder, “Do I really need to read a book that tells me how to be a good Leader?”  

The answer is no. 

That doesn’t mean that these books aren’t useful.  They are. Especially for reinforcing what most Leaders, or people in Leadership positions (who may – or may not – be real Leaders themselves) already know.  

For me, being a good – or maybe even a great – Leader doesn’t just come down to having an understanding about what good Leadership takes.

It also comes down to the execution of what it takes.  To the doing of what it takes. To the habits of what it takes.  

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I’m not about to pretend that I KNOW, for sure, exactly what it takes to be a good Leader.  

I don’t.  

What I do know is what worked for me and gave me the ability to Lead my company from a 2-person start-up to a 150-person regional industry Transformer.  It came down to the careful, constant, and admittedly imperfect, application of the following 10 Leadership Habits:

I. Stay Calm

There are situations that warrant a leader going berserk. Preventing a serious and imminent accident and/or spotting an IED or Bomb threat come to mind.  But in business, at least in my experience, these situations are rare and infrequent.  As a result, remaining calm (at least on the outside) was always the right approach for me.  Yes, things will go wrong, sometimes very wrong.  When that happens, it’s usually obvious to everyone and not something that only the Leader sees.  People tend to know when a situation (or they themselves) is F’d up.  As a Leader, blowing a gasket at these times might feel very “in charge-ish” but it doesn’t help much.  On the other hand, remaining calm helps a lot, not just to defuse the situation, but also to make the F-up appear manageable – as almost all are. Staying calm conveys that the situation is ‘just another thing that we can handle and learn from,’ which is almost always the case.  In other words, business as usual.  Carry on.

II. Be Real

I’m about the furthest anyone can be from a small talker, a rah-raher or a ‘tell it like I see it – no matter what’ kind of Leader. I’m no good at the first two and don’t feel the need to be.  And I’ve never found much value, or appreciation, for the “Leaders” who value their own “unfiltered-ness.” 

My belief system goes something like this.  I care about the people I work with, and I am willing and able to empathize with and strive to understand what makes them who they are.  I’ll remember most, but not all, of what I learn about them and I will care about what’s going on in their lives, particularly as it relates to how it affects their performance at work.  I won’t BS them with some fabricated ‘authenticity’ or other ‘connection’ tactics that waste their time, and mine.  I won’t embarrass or marginalize them with my “brilliant” and unfiltered ‘say what’s on my mind’ BS.  That just never felt right to me.  

I’m not the most mature person in the world, but I’m mature and self-aware enough to get that what’s important isn’t how quickly I can respond, but instead how thoughtfully I can.  I can hate your idea and I can be pissed off about what just happened or what you just said.   But as the Leader, I’m already in charge, so do I really need to drive that already-known point home to make you feel like I just sh*t on you?  I never thought so.  Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is best kept on the vine.  

III. Ask Questions

 Nobody likes a know-it-all, and too many Leaders I’ve experienced pretend to be just that.  I think I understand why. It’s because these Leaders often do know more than those with whom they’ve surrounded themselves.  In my experience, this has usually been done intentionally.  The Leader likes being right – and isn’t afraid to pretend he/she is – especially when surrounded by the Leader’s own hand-picked team of “Yes” folks.  I know because I’ve been that way myself – and probably more often that I’d care to admit. But where I’ve made the most progress as a Leader is when I’ve asked my team questions and then shut up.  The team is there for a reason, after all. It’s not to do what I say.  It’s to be challenged to learn and grow.  That won’t happen by me telling them what to do. It may, though, by asking them how they might do it.

IV. Listen

If I’m willing to ask, I also need to be willing to shut up and listen.  I get it, it’s hard.  Especially when it feels to me like the person I’m listening to is accelerating toward a cliff they don’t see coming or are otherwise headed down a path to nowhere. In these cases, I practice my “breathe-in-for-2-and-exhale-out-for-4” technique to help me keep listening.  Since the chances are good that they aren’t literally speeding toward a cliff that will kill them or ruin the company, my job is to keep actively listening and, when appropriate, Ask the Right Questions to move the discussion, and the person, forward to a great, or at least better, place.      

V. Decide

When the asking and listening are done, and a decision is required (which isn’t always the case), the Leader owes the team a decision. “I’ll think about it” is an OK, yet temporary, strategy – and it needs a ‘by when’ date so that people aren’t waiting forever and so that the Leader isn’t fooled into thinking that time heals all wounds – or that people forget over time.  They don’t.  A yes is better than a maybe.  A no is better than a ‘never got back to me.’  The Leader’s job is not about making all the decisions.  But when a decision from the Leader is needed, it needs to come.

VI. Be Clear

Just because I think something doesn’t mean that everyone else will get what I’m thinking.  This has historically been one of my most frustrating Leadership weaknesses. I believed that if I set the example, people would follow that example.  

I was often wrong about that.  

I believed that if I said it once, everyone had it. 

I was often wrong about that.  

I believed that if I said it to someone, they would deliver it to others exactly the way we’d discussed.  

I was often wrong about that.  

And finally, I believed that if I said a little about what was clear to me, the person(s) to whom I was talking would so easily see into my mind to connect the part of the unsaid with the said.  

By now you get that I was being anything but clear. I was expecting people to practice osmosis which, as it turns out, is an impossible expectation, particularly when mind-readers weren’t my audience.  I learned, and am still learning, that I can’t expect people to understand the mission if I don’t give them the whole story.  It can be a challenge to slow down and make sure you’re being clear. The temptation is to run as fast as your mind can run.  But it’s not just about you.  I found that if I was expecting my team to execute at a level that would eventually be multiple “X” times where we are today, I owed them the clarity and the direction that comes from being clear.

VII. Learn

Albert Einstein is famous for suggesting that, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  

At some point, I feel like you learn all there is to learn about Leading from inside the walls of your company.  Maybe that takes six months or maybe six years, but the time comes.  And then what?  Too often, when that time comes, Leaders simply quit learning because they’ve effectively become experts in the very small world that is their own.  

But what about that huge, untapped learning opportunity in the world outside the company?  Could there be some things out there that would be good to know, exciting to know, beneficial to know?  Things that could slash the frequency and time spent in your company making mistakes, doing things manually that could be automated, unleashing efficiency gains that remain ‘hidden’ in your expertise or prepare you to Lead at a level exponentially above where you are Leading now.  

I was dumb.  

For a long time, I built walls around my first company, inside of which I remained, and my learning suffocated.  Although I hadn’t learned the trade, I became a competent mason. I felt fine because I didn’t realize that there was a better way to feel.  I felt smart because I didn’t realize how dumb I was.  

After a decade of isolation, it finally dawned on me that instead of getting sharper every day, I was dulling.  My brain and my creativity were atrophying.  My curiosity, rotting.  My excitement, dimming.  What a waste. 

Then I busted myself out.  

I started slowly, joining a small business CEO group to test the waters.  Not bad, comfortable, I thought.  Smart people I would not have otherwise met doing cool things I would otherwise have no idea about.  From there, it spread.  I got my learning mojo back.  I joined groups that were at a higher level and put me in the company of Leaders who were at a higher level as well.  Leaders who would share their ideas, and inadequacies, and who weren’t afraid to challenge my thinking – and vice versa.  Breaking out made me realize that Leadership is a life-time learning proposition and that the real learning in life happens in the school that’s out there, beyond my self-constructed walls.      

VIII. Take the Blame

A Leader takes the blame.  As a Leader, it’s always your fault – unless you’re a politician of course and then it’s always some other person’s fault, which seems like a Leadership paradox, but I digress.  

As I see it, if you’re a Leader and you’re not willing to take responsibility for what happens under your watch, you’re in the wrong position.  Sure, you may not have been the person who made the mistake, or did whatever wasn’t supposed to be done, but that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible.  

We burned down a plant.  

I didn’t set the fire, but it was my fault because there were things I could have / should have done – or made sure were done – but did not.  

My Fault.

We contaminated our plant with a nasty toxin that caused us to shut down for a time – and a lot of other painful harm.  

Sure, I didn’t bring the material in myself, but I knew there was a risk – that this thing getting into the plant was at least possible and that it had ruined other companies that had let it in – and still I didn’t provide the tools and policies necessary to detect and prevent the toxin from coming in.  

My fault.  

It would have been easy for me to blame someone else for these things – and a lot more things that went terribly wrong over the years – but it also would have been weak and wrong.  

It grates me when I hear a Leader blame someone else for something that went wrong on their watch.  I wonder to myself, nice story, but who does that help? 

IX. Be Grateful

If you ever get to the point where your leadership style makes others around you feel unimportant, marginalized or scared, I hope someone has the courage to call you out for being an a**hole or, better yet, that you have the sliver of self-awareness needed to recognize and correct it yourself.  

I was taught to appreciate what I have and how I got to have it.  

While you may have outstanding intellect and ability, it’s unlikely that you’d be close to where you are today if it wasn’t for the people who ‘do the work.’  

They’re the important ones, not you.  

Any good leader knows that and treats everyone around them the way they deserve to be treated.  

Be nice.  Be grateful.  

Appreciate.  It’s Free. 

X. Believe

Leadership is a belief system.  And it’s infectious.  

If you believe, and use that belief as fuel, anything is possible. If, on the other hand, you don’t believe, you’re doomed.  

I read a book called “You Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins [highly recommend], a former Navy Seal ++.  In it, he describes our built-in self-limiting belief system, he calls it our ‘mind governor,’ which causes most of us to perform at only 40% of our true capability.  

40%! 

Imagine if he’s right.  Even if he’s only half right, or a quarter right, our ability to achieve what we believe appears to be exponentially higher than what we might naturally be inclined to believe.  

What an opportunity to 10x, 20x or 100x your thinking.  

And the great thing is that once you believe, it opens everyone you Lead to believe as well, to disconnect their own “mind governors” to help you achieve goals they might never have otherwise had the courage to pursue, were it not for your belief – and belief in them.  

A Leader’s job is to maximize every resource in their possession.  To take each resource to a higher level of productivity.  To encourage themselves and their teams to leave their “mind governors” at home, to re-wire their notion of self-limits and to leave the 40% folks in their dust.      

7 thoughts on “10 Leadership Habits that Work, for Me at Least

  1. Mike – well written, if you would be a guest, I would listen to hear you on the podcast! All your leadership points have meaning but in particular it resonates to “Be Grateful” – leadership/ownership has many benefits but none of them are realized without a good team.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your insight and comments. You’re right, the team is everything. I’ll try to figure out a way to interview myself :-). Actually, we’ve got a few things in the works. Please stay tuned and let me know what you think. Mike

  2. Excellent article Mike. I learned a lot from you after I sold my business to you, and I’m still learning from you today. You were always under control in some pretty stressful situations. You’re a good leader and even a better person.

    1. Thank you Anthony. You helped me stay that way through one of our most challenging issues. Grateful for that. Mike

    1. Tha is Kathy. I appreciate you reading this and I’m happy one or two things resonated! Looking forward to Austin!!

  3. Be vulnerable, be inquisitive, confident in your values….MBA not always necessary right? Speaking from one who knows

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