3 Daily Habits for Modern LeadersNov 06, 2023
Most people don’t know that I was demoted within 3 months of starting my first leadership role. Having just moved cities for a promotion, I wasn’t making time for the three habits that led to my success. I wasn’t exercising, meditating, or listening. That wasn’t the only reason I failed, but I know today things would have gone differently had I been taking care of my body, mind, and team.
A year later I took a leadership position with a competitor and was far more successful. Actually, I crushed it. While I hadn't established a practice of doing ALL three habits regularly, I was meditating and listening on a daily basis. I credit those two habits with my success in business and in life.
A decade later when I was leading entire sales divisions, I finally started exercising regularly which I soon realized was a powerful way to manage stress. Practicing all three habits, almost daily was paramount to my success.
You likely don’t have any real doubts about the transformative power of these habits. But do you make the time for all three on a daily basis? I would bet the honest answer is no.
We’re time-starved, so we make trade-offs. We prioritize other things such as: preparing for an upcoming presentation, responding to time-sensitive messages, hiring, budget reviews, etc. All important, but none are more important than the daily three habits.
When I’m coaching leaders, we nearly always do a Workflow & Time Study. In the process we discover opportunities to eliminate, reduce, or delegate tasks and meetings. The result is that we create space for critical leadership activities, including the three daily habits.
Moderate exercise, mindfulness meditation, and active listening are keystone habits. Charles Duhigg defines a “keystone habit” as a habit that, once established, naturally triggers other positive habits and cascading benefits. Understanding and developing keystone habits is crucial for leaders because it acts as a catalyst, creating a chain reaction that impacts various facets of their personal and professional lives. Next, I’ll discuss each habit and I’ll conclude this article with insight on how these habits work in harmony.
1. Moderate Exercise
Exercising clears our head, reduces stress, and we feel better, both physically and emotionally. There is a strong correlation between regular exercise and professional and personal success, which likely explains why this is the most popular habit among leaders today. Not only does exercise increase work performance in general, but leaders who regularly exercise are rated as more effective leaders.
Of course, if you are just starting an exercise program or leveling up, always consult with your physician first.
Working out 2-3 times per week with a high level of intensity is great. But it’s equally important to do more moderate exercise every day. Walking is a great way to squeeze in some exercise throughout the day. When I worked in Manhattan, I would hit a yoga class early AM and walk everywhere. When we work from a home office in the burbs, we often forget that we can take a walk.
Recommendation: Take some of your regular one-on-one meetings on foot.
Exercise elevates our mood, energy, and self-confidence and this in turns leads to more “opportunity flow” which ultimately leads to our success. I’ll talk more about opportunity flow in future articles.
2. Mindfulness Meditation
There have never been more opportunities to learn how to meditate and there has never been more support. While meditation is readily available, it is not easy to build the habit. We have to be highly motivated and stay that way.
We brush our teeth every day. We don’t even think about it. But humans didn’t always brush their teeth. We came to understand how important dental hygiene is for our overall health and happiness. The science is clear that the same is true for meditation. I suspect, at some point in the future, nearly all humans will meditate regularly.
Meditation produces a plethora of benefits for leaders.
- Meditation inherently involves awareness training. So, the first benefit is increased concentration.
- Meditation increases awareness and understanding of one’s emotions and reactivity, which is the foundation of emotional intelligence and a critical competency for modern leaders.
- Meditation helps leaders manage the stress that inevitably comes from the role.
- Meditation builds the modern leader's capacity for kindness toward themselves and others.
- Together these benefits ultimately improve a leader’s communication, critical-thinking, and decision-making abilities.
Recommendation: The best meditation practice is the one you can do consistently.
I practice and teach “mindfulness meditation”, where the focus is on the body, breath, mind, and heart. This is a secularized form of Buddhist meditation, made popular by Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and taught at Vipassana and Insight meditation centers. I will be posting guided meditations in the coming weeks.
3. Active Listening
If you're wondering how something so basic made the list, I'd like to point out all the ways that active listening goes beyond nodding while someone else is talking.
Active listening is a deep form of listening where the leader is fully immersed, open and empathetic. This leadership superpower is so important in today’s world that classes are offered on it.
Here are the key components of active listening:
Presence: Leaders give their complete attention to the speaker, not allowing themselves to be distracted by external factors or their own internal thoughts. Active listeners use non-verbal cues and body language to show engagement.
Empathy: Leaders express genuine concern and empathy, trying to understand the speaker's emotions and perspective.
Open-Mindedness: Leaders avoid being judgmental or jumping to conclusions before hearing everything.
Pause: Allow the speaker to finish their thought and pause before asking questions or offering insights.
Reflecting: If something isn't clear, active listeners will often reflect back what they've heard or ask clarifying questions to ensure they've understood correctly.
Active listening is crucial to navigating today’s complex business environments. It’s only by listening to team members, partners, clients, customer markets and stakeholders that leaders come to understand the complexity, gather different viewpoints, and respond effectively.
Top-down authoritarian leadership is in decline. Today, active listening is emerging as a crucial skill. It facilitates collaborative, inclusive, and adaptive leadership—qualities that are essential for navigating today's organizational challenges.
Team members and employees who feel listened to by leadership report that they feel more valued and as a result are more engaged and productive. By active listening, leaders also build trust, strengthen relationships, and promote a positive culture.
Recommendation: Reflect on your own active listening practice.
In addition to listening to your team members, you might think about how often and in what ways you are actively listening to your customers, your markets, your various stakeholders. How can you listen more deeply with presence? What impact might that have on your decisions?
There is a payoff if you made it this far in the article. I want to let you in on a secret. Psst - there is a magic to the order.
Exercise → Meditate → Listen
Physical exercise can make it easier to sit still and meditate. In yoga, asana comes before savasana. This encapsulates an ancient wisdom. But try it out for yourself. Try some cardio before your next meditation. You’re in for a treat. Likewise, meditation makes it easier to practice active listening. The capacity for attention and caring required for active listening is naturally cultivated through meditation practice.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I am excited to officially launch my newsletter with this piece so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to email me here with questions or feedback. I will be writing more articles on other related topics so if you got any value from reading this one, please consider sharing it with a friend.
In love & gratitude,