Three Key Habits Every Strong Leader Needs to Practice, Every Day

Robert Otrembiak's picture

December 2018
by: Robert Otrembiak

No manager is perfect, or ever will be. But when you think about your great accomplishments, times when you feel the most proud, those were probably some of your hardest and most overwhelming circumstances. Nobody looks back and thinks, “Oh yeah. That was so simple. I really shined.”  We feel pride in rising to a challenge, and overcoming the odds. 

So why do we shy away and step away from challenges every day? Maybe for the same reason some people never see a doctor—no news is good news, or ignorance is bliss. Same reason perhaps why certain folks refuse a free flu shot—we forgo a minor short-term discomfort, but in exchange we risk long-term pain, suffering, even death.

Here is a quick list of three key habits every strong leader needs to practice, every day. 

1. Keep score of what matters more, and on saving face less.

Mind your business. This is not to say, bury your head in the sand—quite the opposite, actually. Know what makes your company tick—how it makes money, key challenges, the competition. Whether your work group sells, manufactures, services, or supports the business, build your goals, objectives, and activities towards those which impact these bottom-line concerns.

It’s very easy to say, “Our department really doesn’t drive business outcomes; we’re overhead.” As long as you know that cutting overhead will always be a priority for any business; and the livelihood of you and everyone who depends on you is always high risk; and you’re comfortable with that risk, then take the easy out. But leadership is hard. Find a way to show your value.

Most of all, identify your key measures. Your work and outcomes need to earn or save your company at least as much as it spends employing you; otherwise your employer’s investment in you is a net loss. Yes, it’s difficult to quantify some benefits, and you can’t prove the savings of bad things that you preventfrom happening. But leadership is hard. Proving it is your job. 

2. Imagine tomorrow more, and restrict your openness less.

Face the future. Sounds simple enough. But do you know what’s simpler? Taking any current or future initiative and finding an excuse in the past to resist it. “We tried that before.” 

I once worked for hospital of 365 employees. On the engagement survey, two employees expressed great consternation that the formerly independent hospital had joined a health system of 14 hospitals, a system that spanned two states. These employees felt very strongly that by joining the system, hospital leadership had made the wrong decision—30 years ago!

Yes, these two employees were speaking out against a decision from three decades prior. They were firmly entrenched, facing the wrong direction—the past. How capable do you think they were in focusing on member concerns, embracing new technologies, practices and expectations with their heads buried in 30 years of sand and discontent? 

Face the future. If you or anyone who reports to you spend time fuming over what is wrong with the past as you perceive it, or the present as you experience it: Change. That. Attitude.

Instead, envision a bright and successful future, and reverse-engineer value-adding goals and objectives to reach it. If you’re tired of implementing other peoples’ ideas and priorities, then get on board and suggests some of your own. It’s a much more fulfilling use of your energy.

3. Try more. Give up less easily. 

Try and try again.How determined are you? Are you relentless? Is it one strike and you’re out? (“I submitted an idea to the Suggestion Box and never heard back, so, why bother?”) Or do you even refuse to step into the batter’s box? (“I’m not gonna be the one sticking my neck out.”) 

Regardless of what our experiences might be—at a job, with an individual, in a situation—realize that each of us is operating with a very small sample size. We naturally look for patterns, but Nobel Prize willing research shows the high degree of randomness in our lives. 

So do something. You will never have enough data to make a perfect decision, so make a good decision, based on pertinent, quality data. Don’t hire somebody based on how long the job has been vacant; hire them—or don’t—based on reliable measures of their qualifications and fit. 

Summing it up: Good managers fail. They know their shortcomings, and learn from them. 

  • Nobody ever convinced everybody of anythingDo not plan for, expect, or even seek universal consensus. Rather, identify who your key allies must be to attain critical mass. Then work with adversaries to identify and nullify risks, and negate the nay-sayers.
  • Placing blame is almost never necessary. People usually know when they screw up. Create a safe space where people can come to you and share how the system or process underperformed, or how they did. Remember, it’s not usually the mistakes people make that get them fired, sued or arrested—it’s what they do to cover up their mistakes. 
  • We all have blind spots.Just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The higher up the ladder you go, the more filtered the feedback you receive. Your challenge is to find people who care enough about your success to be 100% honest, and 100% kind. They will presumably learn this from you, as you will treat them the same. 

For most of us and in most situations, failure is not fatal. The only failure is failing to learn. Not reaching a goal, while learning what doesn’t work in the process, still adds value. As in football, even a gain a few yards helps move the team toward the goal. 

So do not let what you cannot do keep you from doing what you can. Show the humility, creativity and tenacity to keep driving the ball to the end zone. Do this by knowing how you can impact the bottom line of your company, and trying as many approaches as you can to help drive your company toward a brighter future. 

Rob Otrembiak, MA, SPHR, SCP is an experienced HR, Organizational Development, Learning, & Change Management professional who combines expertise in talent management with business acumen, to help you achieve your employee and organizational goals. Find him on LinkedIn. Matt Stone contributed to this article.