5 Keystone Habits of Effective Leadership

In my work as an executive coach, I train CEOs and other leaders of start-ups and Fortune 500 companies on developing the daily habits of leadership that will bring them and their companies continued success. Although our work together over anywhere from months to years can cover a number of topics, the building blocks of effective leadership (and effective living for that matter) come down to 5 Keystone Habits.

1. Take Care of Your Body

High cognitive and emotional performance has been shown to be highly correlated with (if not directly dependent upon, IMHO) exceptional physical well-being [1,2]. Basically, if you are not eating well, sleeping well, and working out 4–5 times a week, you are cheating yourself and those around you from your maximum effectiveness.

I’ve experienced this in my own life, and witnessed it time and again in my clients. If I go even a week without exercise, I start to feel sluggish, mildly depressed, and intellectually dulled. As the Nike ads used to say: Just Do It.

2. Practice Curiosity in All Situations

I used to have a terrible habit of scanning a room and making snap judgments about people from their appearance. Suddenly over half the room didn’t seem worthy to talk to.

And then one day I was pleasantly surprised by someone who at the first glance seemed like a “low-value contact.” In an instant I became fully aware of how narrow I’d allowed my focus to become, and how many incredible people I’d missed out on connecting with solely due to their appearance. Now, I approach everyone with curiosity and make a game out of surfacing the special gift they might have.

Intellectual and emotional curiosity are signs of a growth mindset, which according to Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, is what sets apart those who see themselves and the world in terms of limitless growth and those who see themselves and the world as fixed in place[3].

Practicing curiosity involves assuming others have good intentions until proven otherwise. It’s looking for opportunity in every setback. It’s seeing everyone as having an undiscovered gift. It’s fighting against the tendency to make snap judgments, and developing an openness to being surprised.

3. Aspire to See Near and Far at the Same Time

Leaders are judged not just on the ends they achieve, but also on the means they took to get there. If you only focus on your goals, what you do to achieve those goals, including how you treat your people, will seem secondary.

In Give and TakeAdam Grant, tells the story of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, a man so blinded by ambition, he left a trail of ruined relationships (and shattered lives) in his wake. Truly effective leaders set their sights on big goals, while also taking the time to nurture the relationships right in front of them that will help them achieve those goals.

CEOs who obsesses the bottom-line at the cost of their relationships with their teams will erode the loyalty they need to keep their teams focused, creative, and motivated.

4. Let Go of the “How” — to a point

Effective leaders gain followers because they see a future state that others often can’t see by themselves. Or even more than that, they believe in a future others can also see but have a hard time believing in on their own. And yet, leaders lose followers when they micro-manage every step their followers take in getting to that future state.

Early in my career, I was a compulsive micro-manager. I would personally edit every single communication that went out. Every press release. Every mass email. Every newsletter article. And I made DEEP edits. Sometimes I caught obvious errors. But most often, I made stylistic changes that only served to undermine my relationships with my staff. They believed I thought they were stupid, and over time they grew to resent me.

In a high-growth start-up environment, effective leaders have to trust that their team will operate with the same quality and care that they would themselves. Leaders must let go of how things get done and focus more squarely on knowing what should get done. You can do so with confidence if you’ve taken more time at the beginning to 1) hire the right people, and 2) do more training than you think necessary.

Exception: The only exception to this habit is that a leader should never let his or her team forget the company’s core values and integrity. An effective leader sets moral parameters for the “How,” and does not accept behavior that steps outside of that code.

5. Eat that Shit Sandwich with Grace

Leaders take a lot of shit. And they do so with grace. When I led an environmental non-profit organization in my early 20’s, I received death threats, was lampooned in editorial cartoons in the local paper, and listened as anti-environmentalists swore to oppose us every step of the way.

People who stick their necks out to do and build great things hang a sign around their necks that say, “Give Me Shit.” Every single day someone in your competition or on your staff will come to you with a shit sandwich, and all you can do is take a big bite and smile with grace. Refusing to take criticism or opposition is a sign that you are not yet worthy of the office.

These are the Keystone Habits of Leadership as I have observed them through my own leadership experiences and in those of my clients. Are there any you would add?

(And bonus points if you add examples below of how Jon Snow puts these habits into daily practice. :)