8 High-Impact Leadership Habits Anyone Can Master


As you work towards mastering Leadership That Works, much of your leadership development will be an ongoing journey of self-discovery that will take place over a lifetime as you learn, study, and grow. But you also need frameworks you can put to work today. Here are 8 high-impact leadership habits you can begin cultivating immediately. Some are tactics and others are a simple as consciously shifting your mindset. The good news is: anyone can work to master these habits — from the novice leader to the highly-seasoned.  As you practice, you’ll grow your competence and character and build your leadership ability for the long haul.

1. Declare Yourself.

This highly effective habit jump starts relationships so that leaders grow and achieve together with the people in their organization with greater trust and more efficiency. Here’s how it works: the first hour of the first day you work with someone, you declare yourself, stating clearly what matters to you, how you intend to behave, and why. Set aside an hour for a one-on-one meeting aimed at removing the mystery from your working relationship.  Rather that unproductively spending the first few months working together trying to indirectly figure out what to expect from one another — it’s much more productive to take the issue head on. Then, you can constructively focus on the challenges at hand as quickly as possible. Learn more about this habit here.

2. Write a Handwritten Note

Many leaders, and organizations, have a keen eye for critical thinking and identifying what’s wrong — which is a good thing. But it’s also important to be alert to what’s going right and call it out in a productive way; it’s essential that leaders find ways to celebrate good work. What’s more, people yearn to feel appreciated for the hard work that they do — and those who feel recognized are much more likely to become or remain engaged in their work. Research shows that highly engaged employees are 50% more likely to exceed expectations. While working to dramatically improve the performance profile of Campbell Soup, Doug handwrote over 30,000 notes of genuine thanks to employees at all levels of the organization. Importantly, this was done in a tough-minded way that always kept high standards top-of-mind; Doug’s notes were never gratuitous — they were always  focused on celebrating contributions of real significance. To this day, he still receives letters and emails from people telling him how much those notes meant to them.  Not only is thanking people a no-brainer for effective leadership, it’s an intensely rewarding habit to practice over a lifetime. Don’t wait. Write a thank you note today. And continue the practice throughout your lifetime — you’ll be surprised at the powerful results.

People need to feel appreciated.

3. Listen for What Isn’t Being Said

A challenge for many leaders is that they only listen briefly before jumping in with a “fix” – often times before they fully understand the matter at hand. This can waste a chance to get it right the first time and squander an opportunity to learn from others who know more about the issue. Masterful listening involves more than just keeping your mouth shut; it also means being attuned to things that are beneath the surface, not necessarily being said explicitly. One way to listen better is to listen exponentially to all the other voices that touch the issue. Every conversation has been influenced by many prior interactions. To really get an accurate understanding of the issue, it’s important to think about all the stakeholders. Listen for all the voices that touch the issue, even those that are not present. Try to hear them even though they aren’t in the interaction. With this practice, an even fuller picture will emerge.  Learn more about better listening practices here.

4. Make a Pledge

Are you faced with a big challenge that requires you to earn people’s trust? A good way to approach a tough obstacle that requires buy-in from many different people is to make an authentic leadership pledge. How do you plan to conduct yourself? How will you treat other people? What is the tone you want to set for your organization or community? Spell it out. Clearly. This is your chance to show people what you are about, and what you expect from others, in a tangible way. Then, people can begin to measure your actions against your words. When your actions support your pledge, you earn trust. When your actions betray your pledge, you lose trust. It’s that’s simple. You’ll find this is a powerful habit you can take with you to many different work and life situations. Learn more about this habit here.

5. Make Performance Reviews More Personal

One unique, high-impact practice that Doug adapted as CEO of Campbell was a commitment to management development conversations called One-Over-Ones. One-Over-Ones were intimate discussions between the CEO, the CHRO, a senior manager, and that manager’s direct report (a subordinate). These meetings took place after the senior manager had already completed the traditional performance review of their subordinate. These were much more personal and productive discussions than what most managers were used to. Notably, they were different than regular “performance reviews” because they were focused on the development of the leaders; they were not tedious rundowns of specific tasks or objectives. The focus was leadership itself. The benefits were tremendous in stimulating the engagement of senior leaders. Even if you don’t adapt this exact habit, try to find ways to become more deeply and personally involved in these kinds of discussions — it tangibly helps to engage people and lift performance. Learn more about this habit here.

6. Offer a Helping Hand

A habit that can dramatically transform your leadership profile is adapting a mindset of “How Can I Help?” For one week,  try approaching each interaction with a helper’s mentality. Begin each leadership conversation that arises with these four little words,  “How Can I Help?” and make a conscious effort to record the results. It seems like a small tweak, but watch what happens when you consistently choose these words over all the other words in your vocabulary; notice what happens when you don’t choose the words you normally go for — the terse “yes?”, the less collaborative, “what do you got for me?”, and the all-business “where do we stand with x, y, or z?” and see what happens. Choosing this mentality sends the signal that you’re in this together, that you’ve got their back, and that you’re ready, willing, and able to model the hard-working behavior you want to see embodied by the other people in your organization. Learn more about this habit here.

Notice what happens when you don’t choose the words you normally go for.

7. Say “Yes” to Interruptions.

As leaders, the way we behave in even a single moment can change the way people think about themselves, their leaders, and their future. So it’s our duty to master habits that allow us to react skillfully in every interaction. One habit that can help us show up for people in a more meaningful way is to practice saying “yes” to interruptions. Not just saying “yes”, grudgingly, and slogging through the interaction. But saying “yes” and then really trying to most helpfully inhabit that interaction. The key to this habit is shifting your mindset, consciously, from viewing all interruptions as nuisances to being alert to those instances when disruptions are actually opportunities  — because often that’s what they are. In fact, sometimes these pesky interruptions aren’t keeping you from your work, in some cases they are the work of leadership. Yes, you do have to prioritize, and no leader is physically able to give equal attention to every issue or disruption that arises.  You’ve got to smartly approach this habit. But when have the proper tools to better manage the daily litany of “interruptions”, you won’t want to avoid as many of them. And you’ll be able to more carefully choose which ones to lean into. You’ll find that by saying “yes” to these moments more often, you’ll have more chances to lead impactfully, set high expectations, infuse an issue with clarity, or advance the agenda of your organization. Learn more about this habit here.

8. Kick “or” to the Curb.

As humans, we tend to try to limit complexity and find clear paths forward by defaulting to an “either, or” mindset. But this approach stifles our impact. A simple, but much more powerful framework for approaching thorny conundrums, is to instead look for the “and.” It’s an adjustment you can make right away; it means switching from a scarcity model to an abundance model for your leadership. An abundance model rejects what Jim Collins calls, the “tyranny of the ‘or’” and instead, embraces “the genius of the ‘and’.” For example, instead of proclaiming, “we can either blow it out of the water this quarter OR set the stage for long term growth” — you might ask, “how can we shoot the lights out in the short term AND set the stage for ongoing growth?” Now that you’ve brought “the genius of and” to the party, you’ve widened the field, expanded the pie, and paved the way for more, different, and better creative solutions. Learn more about this habit here.

Which of these habits have you embraced? Which ones are you most excited to try? What other high-impact habits have you adopted to lift your leadership performance? 

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  • Joanne Kaiser

    I found your article about the 8 High-Impact Habits one of the most effective “self improvement”, “how to” articles I have read recently. Each recommendation is highly doable and will manifest long-term outcomes. I especially like #1, Declaring Yourself and #2 Write a Handwritten Note. I will be starting a new job in the next few months and Declaring Yourself is a fantastic way to begin many new relationships. I have penned many hand written notes, but I will now change the focus of the note to include something more directed toward leadership along with words of thanks.

    • DouglasConant

      @joannekaiser:disqus Thanks for sharing your thoughtful comment. So glad you are finding the tips enriching and actionable, just as they were intended! Good luck in the new job. -D.