11 Unexpected Habits of Successful Leaders

When you picture a successful leader, what do you see? Are they getting up at 5am? Working out for an hour before work? Rushing from one meeting to the next?

In my 25+ years working with business leaders across Brunei and beyond, I’ve witnessed a lot of their habits firsthand. And some of them are a little… unexpected.

I’d hazard a guess that journaling and sound healing weren’t top of your list just now. But these are the unexpected habits of leaders. And they’re part of the key to their success.

What makes a successful leader?

You can’t be a leader if you don’t have anyone to lead. So it makes sense that effective communication is the number one quality in any leader. You need to communicate clearly, have a vision and be able to share it with your team (in a way that makes sense to them).

Here are some of the other leadership qualities I’ve spotted along the way:

  • Continuous learning (and encouraging your team to do the same)
  • Openness for collaboration and external input
  • Empowering your team, rather than micromanaging them
  • Willingness to develop relationships with each team member to discover what’s important to them
  • Integrity, taking responsibility for your actions without assuming that you’re always right
  • Effective decision-making, communicating each decision clearly and sticking to it

Ultimately, successful leadership is about walking your talk.

So what gets you there? It’s about building effective habits that support you as you learn and grow towards your goals.

The essential habits of successful leaders

These are the essential habits of leaders. No matter your industry, no matter your style, no matter who you are… these habits need to be regular in your life.

And they’re more unexpected than you might think.

If you do the basics well, you’re already putting yourself ahead of the curve.

1. Goal-setting, in life and in business

You want to succeed. But what does success look like to you?

That’s where your goal-setting process comes in. You need to set your destination before you start driving.

The most successful leaders set goals in both their personal and professional lives.

They’ll share these goals with their families, team members and colleagues. They’ll get the right people on board to help them meet their targets. And they’ll continue to evolve those goals and continue the momentum onto the next thing.

2. Continuous learning and development

You don’t know everything. And the most successful people don’t know everything either. But they are trying to plug the gaps.

When you model an attitude for continuous improvement, you encourage everyone around you to follow suit. And so your collective knowledge grows, as you lead both yourself and your team into a stronger future.

3. Delegation, to allow time (and energy) for big-picture thinking

Delegation is one of the hardest things to get right. But when you succeed, you’re freeing up so much more time and energy for the tasks where you can have the most impact.

This is how successful leaders come up with fresh ideas. They don’t distract themselves with monotonous tasks they can outsource to others. They focus on their zone of genius by choosing to create space for it.

4.Prioritising one-to-one connections

Remember how I said communication was the most important quality of a successful leader? This habit is key to that.

I see the best leaders prioritising one-to-one conversations with their team members.

Yes, they have team meetings. But they listen to their team members outside of those times too. So everyone has a safe space where they can share what’s on their mind (and what needs to be done to fix it).

The unexpected habits of successful leaders

Earlier this year, I hosted a fireside conversation with some of Brunei’s most senior business leaders. And when I asked them about the habits that had helped them succeed, I was taken aback by the response.

One of the most popular answers was journaling. And if they didn’t practice it, they were asking how to give it a go.

Here are some of the other unexpected habits I’ve spotted along the way.

5. Journaling

Leadership can put you in some high-stress situations.

If you’re constantly on edge, the pressure’s going to cause you to react. But if you’re in tune with your thoughts and feelings, it’s going to be far easier for you to decide what to do.

That’s where journaling comes in.

A practice like gratitude journaling can train your mind to look for the good and the opportunity in your life. Whilst more traditional emotional journaling can help you process your thoughts and feelings in a safe space.

6. Mindfulness and meditation

Once again, this comes back to managing your stress. By making relaxation a regular part of your routine, you’re introducing a habit that automatically takes care of you.

You’ll be able to react to situations from a place of calm, make more strategic decisions and work in a more sustainable way.

7. Reading

Whether it’s reading for leisure or reading for learning, this is one of my favourite leadership habits.

Reading is an amazing way to broaden your mind with the perspectives of others. You can escape into a story when you need a rest. Go behind the scenes of others’ stories when you need fresh ideas. And discover new ways to communicate through the words of others.

So tell me, what’s on your to-be-read pile?

8. Self-reflection

If you’re going to lead successfully, you need to know who you are.

When self-reflection becomes a regular habit and part of your routine, you know your strengths and weaknesses. You can lean into the things you do well and, equally as importantly, ask for help in the areas you struggle with.

It might seem like you’re “wasting” your time in those quiet moments. But you’re saving your future self so much hassle.

If you could move past those cluttered thoughts and start taking purposeful action, what could you do?

9. Sound healing

This was another habit that really took me by surprise. But I love how this leader really gave themself what they needed to achieve their goals.

Sound healing is a way to achieve a meditative state. The practice can heal stress, soothe anxiety and help restore balance.

The lesson here is to find the path that works for you. If you know your goal e.g. reduce stress, consider how you can achieve it in a way that feels enjoyable and doable for you.

10. Life-work balance

Being a successful leader means showing up, day after day, and putting your best foot forward. You can’t do that if you’re not working sustainably. It’s simply not possible. You’ll burnout.

That’s where life-work balance comes in. By putting your life before your work, you’re protecting yourself. And you’re allowing the best version of yourself to show up.

11. Vulnerability

This is such a brave habit but it’s an important one.

As leaders, we often don’t feel able to be vulnerable. There’s a fear that if we’re honest about a struggle, we’re admitting a weakness.

But, in reality, that vulnerability can be our biggest strength. It’s how you forge connections, find help and overcome your hurdles. Rather than suffering in silence and getting stuck!

Choose the right habits for you and your leadership style

Every single one of you reading this will have a different habit you need to prioritise.

If you take a look at famous leaders, you’ll see that each of their habits is tailored to them, their needs and their environment.

Michelle Obama makes her happiness a priority every day. Because she knows that putting herself on her priority list benefits everyone around her too.

Brené Brown schedules at least half a day of dedicated alone time every week. Because she’s an introvert and she needs to preserve her energy.

Sheryl Sanberg starts each meeting with an invitation for managers to share both their professional and emotional states. Because she’s seen that personal wellbeing is essential to employee performance.

What habit do you need to start with?

Now you’ve chosen your habit, how do you implement it?

If you take one thing away from reading this, I hope it’s this: start small. Don’t try and overhaul your entire life overnight.

Instead, choose a realistic habit to build. And then grow from there.

Try habit stacking

Link your new habit to a habit you already have.

For example, when I first started gratitude journaling, I linked it to drinking my morning coffee. So when I drank my coffee, I was reminded to do my gratitude journaling.

The coffee became my trigger.

Set a timeframe

Give yourself a trial period to test out your habit.

I like to start doing a new habit for a week. Then I’ll try a month. Then two months. And so on.

That way, I’m able to check in with my progress along the way and how I’m feeling.

Break it down

This links back to starting small. Rather than trying to exercise for an hour three times a week, set stepping stones for yourself.

Perhaps you’ll aim for 15 minutes for a week. Then 20 minutes the next week. And slowly but surely, you’ll increase your habit until you reach your goal and it becomes part of your routine.

Give yourself a prize

Yes, you can still bribe yourself as an adult! Choose something you enjoy as a reward after you’ve completed your habit.

For me, it’s a coffee after I’ve finished my workout. You start to associate your new habit with the feel-good endorphins of the prize that comes afterwards.

Choose regularity over consistency

If you aim for consistency, it can be easy to give up after you’ve skipped a few days of your habit. But if you choose to be regular instead, you can still show up even when you’ve been out of action for a while.

So don’t be afraid to pick up a habit even when it’s fallen down your priority list. It’s never too late.

If you could move past those cluttered thoughts and start taking purposeful action, what could you do?

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About the author

Lisa is a mother, a business owner, a founder, and an executive leader. She's been through it all and has come out the other side to thrive. Now she's helping you to do the same! Learn how you can find clarity and support through her services for individuals and organisations.