All leaders want to be effective. Whether we lead an operational team, are a member of a committee or running a project, it doesn’t really matter.
In this post I want to talk about habits of effective leaders, rather than general characteristics. Why? Because habits can be developed over time. It’s no good saying that the best leaders are charismatic.
If you’re Sally from the operations team, you might not have a charismatic bone in your body. But habits? Sally can work on and build good habits. Habits of effective leaders are grown, they aren’t innate.
What is an effective leader?
The first question to answer is…what is an effective leader? In my experience, effective leaders have the following qualities.
1. Effective leaders are well respected. People think they are good at what they do. The interesting thing is, this respect actually helps them lead better, because people around them trust their capability and intentions.
2. Effective leaders focus on the right things. Let’s not confuse efficiency with effectiveness. Efficiency means completing tasks with little unnecessary effort. But effectiveness means doing the right things. Effective leaders don’t focus on low-value tasks. They realise they can’t do everything, so they focus on doing the right things.
3. Effective leaders are adaptable. They see situations around them and they are able to adjust their approach. Rather than push forward with a course of action that won’t work, they adjust and course-correct until they hit the mark.
We know what effective looks like. So now let’s look at just how we might get there.
Habits of effective leaders
1. Effective leaders prioritise
Coming in at number one…it’s prioritisation. When is the last time you sat still and determined your priorities? Recently I heard somebody say “I don’t write lists any more, because I never get to the end of them.”
Really? If you are never accomplishing the tasks on your list, then your tasks can’t be all that important. If they were, you’d get them done. One of the most important habits of effective leaders is setting priorities for the day, week or month and working to achieve them.
Effective leaders keep in mind what is important. Critically, they keep in mind what is valuable work, and what nobody cares about. Ditch the stuff that adds little value to you, your team and your stakeholders, but still requires effort. Focus on what matters.
If something has been on the bottom of your list for months, get rid of it. Kill it. If it’s really important, it will find its way to your list, once again.
How to build the prioritisation habit: It’s not hard. Start with a number, sometimes three is good. Then each day, choose the three things that you will do by the end of the day. These should be high value items. Three is achievable and not too daunting. Ten might be too much. Don’t back down. Other things will happen during the day, but you will finish these three tasks.
Here is a great old post from Zen Habits that will help you identify your high value tasks.
2. Effective leaders break down complex problems into small, manageable chunks
Effective leaders chunk up their work. Often in the workplace, you’ll be faced with daunting, complex problems that seem difficult to overcome. Sometimes you’ll wonder where you should even start.
The starting point is always the same. Break the problem or task down, until you can take action on at least part of it. This will stop you from being paralysed by the potential number of options available.
How to build this complexity-breaking habit: Take the time to stop and think. Get a piece of paper or whiteboard and start to break the problem down. Start with the largest chunks first. Often, there are only a few.
Write the large chunk names at the top, in big boxes. This is the highest, most simple level. Now for each box, break it down to the next level. For this process, at each stage, you should ask yourself the following questions.
a) What is the output that I need to produce? It could be a plan, a report, a design, a calculation. The list is endless.
b) To get to the output, what actions do I need to take? When you walk to the shop to buy milk, you break down the task automatically. You get dressed, pick up a bag, open the door, lock the door behind you and start walking. Complex work problems are no different, you just need to start to break them down.
c) If you are stuck, ask yourself “What don’t I know or understand?” Once you know what you don’t know, one of your next tasks will be to find the answer. After you do, you can work on breaking down your problem again.
3. Effective leaders monitor the attitudes and behaviour of people around them
In order to be effective, you’ll need to know how to adapt to different situations. Effective leaders constantly monitor what’s going on around them. They observe their team and stakeholders to understand how things are progressing.
If their team members are stressed or unhappy, effective leaders will notice and will work to proactively address the problem. If key stakeholders are getting nervous about something, effective leaders will see and will look to find out more and help them feel more comfortable.
Effective leaders know that pushing forward with an approach that is causing adverse outcomes is counterproductive. They will try to correct their path until they find the right one, that works for the majority of people. Of course, effective leaders also know they can’t please everyone.
How to build the habit of being perceptive: Some people are born being perceptive. Others aren’t. It doesn’t matter. You can build the habit. One of the ways to do this is to start being mindful of people and places around you.
Mindfulness means being in the present moment and taking notice of your environment. The next time you’re in a meeting, observe the people in the room. Are some fidgeting? Looking tired? Glancing at each other secretly at certain points? Also make sure you actually listen to what people are saying, rather than just waiting for a chance to speak.
Stop and take the time to observe the people in your team. Are they cranky? Working slowly? Not making jokes like they used to? Once you start to take time to notice, you’ll see many things.
Here is a nice post on starting to build a mindfulness habit. Mindfulness sounds like a new-age hippie endeavour right? It’s really not rocket science. Over time, it will help you to notice things you might have been overlooking.
These habits of effective leaders are available to anyone
The three habits of effective leaders here are achievable for any leader. As with everything, some people will be naturally better at developing these habits than others. However, the real goal is to improve the way you operate. You aren’t in a competition with the rest of the leaders in the world. You’re in a competition with yourself. if you’re improving, you’re winning.
All it takes is gradual practice on these aspects and you’ll find you are more perceptive, spending time on the right things and cutting through complexity to break down hard problems.