Great leaders don’t just say the first thing that comes into their heads, or lose themselves whimsically down rabbit holes of distraction. They act with clarity, purpose and intent.
The challenge is that leaders are always busy – there will always be more to do than your time and resources will allow – and busy people are rarely intentional because when time is short, it’s human nature to revert to instinct. One way to become intentional despite your lack of time is therefore to train your instincts by developing good leadership habits.
Like any habit, this means consciously and consistently practising a behaviour over at least three weeks, ideally at set times or anchored to existing habits (e.g. you always read the news after breakfast).
Here’s a selection of ideas that may prove useful. Don’t try too many at once – it’s more likely to stick if you do one or two at a time – and if you can, find a mentor to keep you accountable.
1 – Talk to someone new every day
Leadership by walking around is possibly the most powerful communication tool at your disposal. Personal interaction and observation allow a leader to understand what’s really happening in their organisation better than any number of management meeting presentations.
In the hybrid world of work we’re now in, this is harder than before, so it’s doubly important to make time for conversations with people outside of your immediate circle, whether that’s in the office kitchen or via video call. Aim for one every day.
2 – Take breaks
It is neither sustainable nor in any way desirable to sacrifice your physical or mental health on the altar of productivity. Among other things (like eating healthily and getting a good night’s sleep) this means investing in taking breaks.
The easiest way of ensuring you get some downtime is to diarise it, for example by limiting meetings to 45 minutes rather than an hour, and blocking out a full lunch break every day.
3 – Feed your mind
If you only ever focus on your work, your mental horizons will narrow. To be creative, you need to be open to new things and able to draw connections between disparate ideas, both of which mean you need to let your mind wander sometimes.
Make sure you read something every day, or listen to the radio or a podcast, or watch a documentary – just something to expose you to unexpected thoughts. It doesn’t have to be for long – 15 minutes will do – so long as you pick a time that is sustainable for you, whether over breakfast, in the car when dropping the kids off at school, or before you go to bed.
4 – Be grateful
A simple thank you can go a very long way, yet it is remarkable how often leaders neglect to say it. You don’t have to go overboard with gushing speeches every ten minutes, and you shouldn’t assume everyone wants to be thanked in the same way (some people find said gushing speeches embarrassing), but you should remember to do it regularly.
Thankfulness can become a habit simply by taking a moment every day or every week to think about whether someone has gone above and beyond recently, or even just worked really consistently – it’s not as flashy as pulling an all-nighter to close a deal, but it’s just as important.
5 – Make a monthly to-do list
Daily to-do lists have limited usefulness as time management tools because they create the illusion of parity between different tasks, alongside the expectation that a productive day necessarily involves ticking off a certain number of items. This can fool people into prioritising smaller, easier, non-critical tasks over longer and trickier but nonetheless more vital ones.
Drawing up monthly or weekly lists can help you to focus on the top tier items, without losing sight of the second tier. As with any to-do list, they are generally more effective if written up at the end of the previous day/week/month, so that you start the period knowing exactly what you’re doing and in what order.
6 – Active listening
You have two ears and one mouth for a reason, as the old adage goes. But listening well doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Make a point in one-on-one conversations not to offer your thoughts until at least 15 minutes through, or in group meetings until everyone has had their say. Ask open questions, and summarise your understanding of the answers back to the other person to make sure you’ve got it right.