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"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation." Aristotle

Leadership isn't a byproduct of a title or position, nor is it innate. It's forged through influence, effort, and the quest for continual improvement. And, certainly, some trial and error, too! Leadership, like excellence, is won through training, through the adoption of habits that facilitate growth and development. To be an effective leader, you can't rely on your title: you have to earn it.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders

1. Hire - and Trust - an Assistant

I chair two Vistage groups, one for entrepreneurs and the other for professional managers. Looking around the room at 15 entrepreneurs, there are usually two or three who have assistants. For the professional managers, it's the reverse: typically there are only two or three who do not. Do they know something their entrepreneurial counterparts don't? Yes.

They know that their time is valuable! The fact is, if you don't have an assistant, you're doing something you shouldn't be. As Melba Duncan writes in Harvard Business Review:

When workers see the boss loading paper into the copy machine, the theory goes, a "we're all in this together" spirt is created. But as a management practice, the structure rarely makes economic sense. [W]ork should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.

The return on investment for an assistant is significant. Carlos Ghosen, for instance, is the Chairman and CEO of Renault (Paris), Nissan (Japan), and AvtoVAZ (Russia.) In addition to making the rest of us feel like underachievers, Ghosen's position as leader on two continents (with regular trips to the US thrown in as well) underscores the importance of assistants.

He says, "I have an assistant in France, one in Japan, and one in the US. [They] screen all the mail and documents... They know exactly the topics I am interested in and what should be diverted to other members of the executive committee." You won't catch this guy loading the copier.

The question you need to ask yourself is this: would you work for minimum wage? If the answer is "No" - and I suspect it is! - you need to hire a well-qualified assistant. Sooner rather than later.

2. Delegate Responsibly

Many leaders, particularly entrepreneurs, become mired in the trap of working in their business rather than on it. But as B. Eugene Griessman wrote, "You should do only that which only you can do!"

Research indicates that leaders who are able to delegate effectively achieve higher rates of growth for their organizations, generate more revenue, and create more jobs than those who cannot. Not only does delegating, appropriately, lighten your workload, it fosters growth and engagement in your people.

Senator John McCain says, "People don't care if I personally get involved, or if I put somebody who is a hell of a lot smarter than I am on it." That's the mark of an effective leader: realizing you're not the smartest person in the room and delegating the best mind to the task at hand.

3. Make Time for Quiet

Why do you get your best ideas in the shower? Because you're not answering texts; your phone's not ringing; you're not reading another email. There is nothing except you and water: the perfect combination for creative, breakthrough thinking.

When you do something monotonous, like showering, exercising, or driving your regular route to or from work, your mind goes on autopilot. Your micromanaging prefrontal cortex relaxes, and your default mode network opens up pathways between different areas of the brain. The result: ideas bubble up from your subconscious that your conscious mind would never have allowed.

Leaders are bombarded with demands and distractions; breaking away is difficult - but essential. Two ways to do it:

  • Make an appointment with yourself. If you don't set aside time, on a formal basis, then everything else is going to fill it. When you make an appointment with another person, it's sacred. You don't schedule anything else in that time slot; you work around it. Make an appointment with yourself and hold it to the same standards. Don't pencil think time in; commit to it.

    LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, for instance, regularly schedules 30 - 90 minutes with himself. These "buffers" are critical. "If you don't take the time to think proactively, you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it."

  • Go away. Physically separate yourself from distractions. Even if you close your office door, you're subject to phone's ringing, email's pinging, and people knocking. So go. To Starbucks, to the gym, around the block.

    Bill Gross, financial manager and author, clears quiet time for himself with yoga. Every day, he goes to the club across the street to do an hour and a half of yoga. "There's an understanding here that that's my haven. Some of my best ideas literally come from standing on my head doing yoga."

4. Plan your day before it starts

Once our days get started, you're already in what I call "gunslinger mode." Something jumps up, you shoot it. You immediately begin to react and respond rather than proactively tackling the tasks you had planned.

Planning your days the night before allows you to avoid that trap, and as author and speaker Jack Canfield says:

"All night long your subconscious mind is going to be working on how to make that happen. It's going to be coming up with creative ideas, pulling information from your past memory into the present so you can utilize it. Planning your perfect day is like having an employee working for you all night long.

Talk about a dream employee.

5. Handle Important Issues and Discussions in Person

It's far too easy to "talk" via texts and emails. But leadership is, at its core, influence. The best way to influence people is to make time for face-to-face conversations. Rene Shimada Siegel, founder of High Tech Connect, says, "No matter what industry we're in, we're all in the people business. We'll only be successful if we really get to know our customers and colleagues."

If you cannot physically meet with someone (as is increasingly the case in a global economy), then at least pick up the phone.

6. Reduce the Amount of Information Coming at You

How many times have you signed up for a newsletter because it sounded interesting, and yet, it sits untouched in your inbox? How many newspapers are lying around, unread? If you're not reading it, kill the subscription. Stop the insanity!

Bill Gross says that "eliminating the noise is critical. You have to cut the information flow to a minimum level." Knowledge is power; but extraneous data is a burden that's too heavy for effective leaders.

7. Get Off Your Butt - And Clean Up Your Eating Habits

I would say exercise is a no-brainer - but, actually, it's all about the brain! Physical activity helps improve memory and boosts cognitive skills. And research confirms that exercising increases productivity in the workplace.

Exercise's twin, good diet, is also critical to leaders. Professional athletes fuel their bodies with nutrients: they don't go to the drive-thru and wolf down burgers and fries. So why do we? We're professionals; we ought to be eating like professionals.

While far from an exhaustive list, adopting these habits and integrating them into your days will go a long way in helping you become a more effective leader. Don't fall back on your title: make leadership a habit won by effort and practice.


Larry Hart

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