What makes a great leader? Everyone is different, but most have in common the ability to inspire and keep their teams on track. And how do they do that? By cultivating habits that keep them passionate about their work and organized in their pursuits.
Interestingly, many leaders have the same habits — and they’re slightly different from most people’s. Great leaders often read, exercise and meditate more than the average person, for example.
Learn more about how these famously successful people spend their time, and you might just find your own path to achieving your goals.
1. They read
If there’s one thing that’s true across the board for people who work in leadership roles, it’s that they’re busy. Still, most CEOs and executives read four to five books per month. The average person reads just two or three over the course of an entire year. What does this tell us about leadership — and about the impact of reading?
Well, it turns out that another thing many successful leaders have in common is that they love to learn and grow. They’re intellectually curious. That’s a big part of why many tend to read so much.
“You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning,” said Bill Gates, in an interview with Time. “Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read. Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career and in the work that I do now with my foundation.”
Many of those in the C-suite use their free time learning something new. Sometimes they read books that relate directly to their industry — but not always. Regardless of their reading list, they’re feeding their passion for learning and nurturing their interest in the world around them.
Successful leaders stay busy, not just active. They’re intellectually engaged, even during off-hours. You don’t get ahead professionally by resting on your laurels. You succeed by demonstrating your expertise and a dynamic commitment to expansion. Reading more is one way to boost these skills.
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2. They solicit and listen to feedback
The best leaders ask for feedback, according to a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, which was reported by Forbes. Zenger and Folkman found that leaders who ranked in the top 10 percent when it came to asking for feedback scored, on average, in the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.
Successful people are confident and strong enough to not only solicit 360-degree feedback (from those above, below and to the side of them) but to listen to it. They can hear what they need to improve, and are anxious for feedback that can help them learn to do a better job. They don’t just want the praise.
3. They exercise
Research has shown that exercise is good for your mind, not just your body. Regular exercise improves memory and learning. It also reduces stress and improves mood. No wonder that many successful leaders make routine exercise a part of their lives, despite their busy schedules.
Many leaders seem to be just as diligent about their healthy fitness routines as they are about their work. They know they have to make exercise a priority in order to reap the physical and mental benefits.
“Successful entrepreneurship requires more than just mental fitness, it requires physical fitness as well. I have a daily workout regime that started in 2013 and has grown and evolved in step with our business. It started with CrossFit (high intensity interval type training) and has expanded from there,” says James Parrelly, managing partner of Paw Pods, in Inc. “Clearing your mind and challenging yourself physically with a tough workout every day prepares you for the daily challenges of business. A strong body holds up a strong mind.”
Working out doesn’t have to take up a ton of your free time either in order for it to be effective. Research indicates there are significant physical and cognitive health benefits associated with exercising for about an hour just three times a week.
4. They stay calm
You may think of strong leaders as being super charismatic and compelling. But, there are some indications that the best leaders are actually pretty boring — at least, when it comes to their emotional responses. The most effective leaders tend to be friendly, flexible and social.
Good leaders are emotionally reliable and predictable. They take the ups and downs of working life in stride, and they help the people around them to do the same. (Keep in mind that emotionally steady people tend to like to surround themselves with positive people, too — so it pays to try to be one.) These kinds of leaders help their employees to feel calm and relaxed, which helps with productivity, company culture and employee tenure.
Think back to when you were in school, and how it felt to be in the classroom of a favorite teacher versus what it was like to spend time in the classroom of a less-pleasant instructor. It’s no different in a professional environment. The people in leadership roles set the tone. Successful leaders establish a positive tone.
Staying calm also helps leaders to perform to the best of their abilities on a consistent and reliable basis. They manage their stress well, so they don’t feel rushed or panicked. Their calmness helps them remember not to skip a step, to reread emails, double-check agendas, etc. Good leaders have learned that having the right attitude is the first step toward having a great day and, ultimately, a successful career.
5. They meditate
Many successful people swear by meditation — and for good reason. It’s been shown to lower stress levels and improve creative thinking, productivity and cognitive functioning. It’s also been associated with improved physical health.
Some leaders even offer mediation to everyone who works for their company, including Apply, Aetna and Google, just to name a few. Oprah Winfrey noticed so many positive effects from her own meditation practice that she now offers meditation classes to everyone in her company.
“So now I give myself a healthy dose of quiet time at least once (and when I’m on point twice) a day. Twenty minutes in the morning, 20 in the evening,” Winfrey wrote at her website. “TM (Transcendental Meditation) teachers have taught everyone in my company who wanted to learn how to meditate. The results have been awesome. Better sleep. Improved relationships with spouses, children, coworkers. Some people who once suffered migraines don’t anymore. Greater productivity and creativity all around.”
6. They prioritize
Successful leaders know how to prioritize. They know how to focus on the most important goals and let the other things go. They set priorities and work toward them, not allowing less-essential tasks to get in their way.
Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule is a great example of the kind of single-minded focus many successful leaders employ. The basic principle is this: First, you brainstorm 25 goals. Then, you order them in terms of importance. Finally, you commit to only working on the first five until they are accomplished. You actually don’t allow yourself to move forward at all on the other 20 until the most important goals are achieved.
Leaders know that identifying and honing in on priorities is essential for success.
7. They unplug
Many successful people really enjoy what they do for a living. Their passion helps them to immerse themselves fully in their jobs. They also tend lose themselves in their work — whether they’re crunching numbers, teaching a class or designing a car.
Still, great leaders don’t work around the clock. They understand that taking time away from work — and from their devices — is essential.
My phone and I have a co-dependent relationship, but I’ve done a better job of drawing boundaries since I did a tech curfew last year. The key for me has been removing all alerts and notifications from my phone, so that I choose when to check it, and then being super careful on weekends and on vacation. It’s easy to develop a Pavlovian response to your phone, reaching for that Gmail app without even realizing that you’re doing it. I like to use airplane mode strategically and on my honeymoon went so far as to delete email off my phone for two full weeks.
Famously successful people don’t work all the time — in fact, many of their daily habits relate to finding ways to disconnect from work and restore their energy. They take good care of themselves so that they can be the emotionally steady, intellectually engaged and insightful leaders their companies depend on them to be. Could adopting some of these habits help you do to the same?
Tell Us What You Think
How many of these habits are already a part of your life? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.