5 Habits of Successful Leaders

5 Habits of Successful Team Leaders

By Matt Oechsli | @mattoechsli

Much has been written about leadership principles – individuals, schools, executive consultants, even countries have been credited with disciples of one discipline or another. But is there a common thread found in such indispensable leaders? Is there a conceptual model to follow? Are there specific habits that can be duplicated?

At The Oechsli Institute, we’ve conducted multiple research projects on wealth management teams and leadership over the past 20 years – and the answer is an unequivocal…yes! 

Granted, successful team leaders are as different as they are similar, yet our studies have identified five particular qualities of great leaders… 

  1. Goal Driven
  2. Excellent Communication Skills
  3. Empower Others
  4. A Caring Attitude
  5. Total Commitment

These qualities have become habits for these world class team leaders. And since habits are acquired behaviors, they can be adopted by anyone. There’s no magic leadership formula. All it takes is desire coupled with an investment of time, energy, and patience.

Before thinking of these five team leadership qualities as a conceptual model that can be duplicated, it’s helpful to take a quick look at human nature. Which takes me to Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and Frederick Herzberg’s “Hygiene Factors.”

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy:

  • First: food and shelter
  • Second: safety and security
  • Third: belonging, friendship and love
  • Fourth: self-esteem and ego
  • Fifth: self-fulfillment

Maslow’s theories are based on the idea that people naturally attempt to satisfy lower needs before moving to higher levels.

Understanding where you are in this hierarchy is useful to motivating yourself, then your team members, to higher levels of performance. The first step is to be aware of your needs, then those of your individual team members. The level at which they’re currently performing provides an understanding of their personal agendas, just as their performance mirrors yours. The key is targeting all motivational efforts at each individual’s personal agenda – and this requires a real commitment on the part of the team leader. 

Herzberg, a social scientist from last century’s 50s and 60s is best known for challenging the common perceptions of motivation. He labeled a number of commonly regarded motivators – salary, working conditions, and company policies for example as “hygiene factors” meaning they were important for morale but had little relevance in motivating high-level performance. So accurate was Herzberg’s work that it remains one of the more commonly applied management principles today.

The best team leaders have a system, they’ve developed these qualities into habits, and transfer all of this to their team members. These leaders insist on tapping into their own talents and expect the same from their people. A child models the behavior and attitude of parents, a mentee of a mentor, and so on. Good leaders understand the importance of leading by example, behavior repeated over time develops into a habit, and psychologists seem to agree that this process takes only 21 days (full disclosure – I think it takes longer).

Now let’s look into developing these qualities into indispensable leadership habits.

1. Goal-Driven

Elite team leaders have ambitious goals, subgoals, and corresponding fixed activities for almost everything. History has proven that the strongest leaders have the most clearly defined mission, that all motivation is self-motivation, and they are able to hold themselves accountable. Alas, you can’t motivate another person, be it your son, daughter, or junior advisor. However, what you can do is create an environment that stimulates self-motivation. This is where everyone is committed to results-oriented, time-specific goals that support the team’s goals. This doesn’t mean that team members develop an entrepreneurial attitude, only that they buy-in to setting professional goals that support the bigger team goals.

Goals are the prerequisite to achievement – and most people want to see themselves as an achiever.

2. Excellent Communication Skills

Everyone on the team, from the part-time intern to the senior partners, need to be able to communicate the team’s long range vision and the ambitious goals and subgoals that will make all of this a reality. This requires high-level communication, it takes time and repetition, which in turn requires both energy and creativity. Metaphors and symbolic rewards have proved very effective; We’re the A team scaling Project $500 million.” Symbolic rewards should be used in partnership with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and two considerations are important: the current need level of an individual, and a reward that fosters motivation. 

Despite the importance of metaphors and symbolic rewards, the most powerful medium is your spoken word, privately, to a team member. Your one-on-one communication, followed up with supportive action can move mountains (How’s that for a metaphor?). The power of personal praise has proved without a doubt to be the best motivator. As Benjamin Franklin said over 200 years ago, The heart of a fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of a wise man is in his heart.” Recognition and praise push people closer to their potential than envelopes stuffed with money. 

People will move heaven and earth if they believe in themselves, their dreams, and their leader. Keep an open door policy, establish activity targets and rewards, and challenge people by using the “hug’em, smack’em, hug’em method (praise, discipline, praise) of communication.

3. Empower Others

Have you ever noticed how certain people always make you feel good? They don’t shower you with false praise, rather possess a special quality that’s transferred and lifts your spirits. Behavioral experts refer to this as positive energy transference. Many people mistake this for charisma, implying that either you have it or you don’t – this isn’t true. 

Elite team leaders employ strategic delegation that transfers positive energy and empowers that individual to grow in a variety of ways; accepting more responsibility, acquiring a new skill, expanding their knowledge base, etc. All of which stimulates personal growth that is aligned to the team’s goals.

This requires continually strengthening team belief through weekly meetings that reinforce the team’s goals, connect individual goals, and has both collective and individual accountability. Nobody wants to be seen by their peers as the weak link, while everyone loves to be respected as a contributor.

4. A Caring Attitude

An old saying sums up this leadership habit: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Profound in its simplicity, the applications are boundless. Children, spouses, vendors, clients, neighbors, team members – any personal relationship will thrive using the power of genuine caring.

Make a point to develop an emotional connection with everyone on your team, not just your favorites. Do something special on an individual basis, know what’s going on in their family and other aspects of their lives. This is where it’s important to remember that little things mean a lot. 

5. Total Commitment

This is the habit the fuels all the others. This is what provides the focus to the team’s mission. Elite team leaders lead people to higher levels by walking the talk, practicing what they preach, leading by example (all metaphors) and mastering the aforementioned habits. 

Total commitment means listening to a team member when you’d rather be doing something else, carving out one-on-one time for someone who might need a boost, holding someone accountable for not meeting performance expectations, or going over something for the fifth time with a team member who’s challenged by their expanded responsibilities. And all of this, even career counseling, must be done with a caring attitude.

These team leadership habits are nondiscriminating. Although experts claim that it takes only three weeks to develop a habit, a sensible action plan is to dedicate three months, one full quarter, to develop these qualities into personal habits. Start raising the bar with yourself – your team will follow. 

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