The 5 indispensable habits of the best leaders

All of the great leaders I’ve known have five habits which I believe were vital to their success.

Can you easily tell who is a great leader?

The unassuming gentleman in the photo is the great leader and Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton.

Just one of Shackleton’s exploits tells you much about the man and his leadership qualities. He led 27 of his fellow explorers through months of hardship and danger, in the most inhospitable weather and seas, from a broken ice-bound ship to a safe return home. Not one man was lost.

You’ll get the full story when you reach the footnote.

I can only imagine what Ernest Shackleton was like in person, but to do what he did, he must have been something special.

But he doesn’t really look like the stereotype of a strong and fearless leader, does he? And some of the best leaders I have worked with haven’t, on first impression, seemed like the leaders they turned out be.

Each of those good leaders have five habits that appeared to be crucial for their success. I suspect Shackleton had all of them.

Easy to help

If you try to be strong all the time, adroitly commanding every subject and situation, how can someone help you? There are no apparent gaps to fill.

Good leaders know the things they’re not good at. They find people who can fill that gap for them. That ‘weakness’ is no more than giving a chance for someone to be helpful.

It’s displayed in different ways.

One CEO I travelled with was lousy at organising himself while on the road. He got into the habit of handing me his passport, tickets and schedule, so that I could look after both of us as we passed through airports and hotels. We were both happier, and he had more time to think.

Another CEO was expected to chair any meeting he was part of just because he was the top guy. The truth of it was that he wasn’t good at chairing a meeting. He was a much better contributor when someone else was managing the meeting. He learned to let go of the expectation that leading meant that he had to also chair the meetings, and everyone’s contributions improved.

That’s two tiny examples of leaders showing that they’re not capable of doing everything well. They become easy to help when they do that. And people like to help.

Constantly learning

Yes, leaders are voracious readers of books. You may have heard of Bill Gates’ book recommendations.

Several leaders I’ve worked with have spare copies of books they really like on their office bookshelf, ready to give to anyone they think might benefit from reading them.

The good leaders that I’ve worked with go beyond that, and consume knowledge constantly. They find it everywhere.

They ask intelligent searching questions of colleagues, obviously. But their quest for knowledge and learning goes far beyond their own domain. They will ask similarly direct questions of competitors, people in other industry sectors, people well below them in the pecking order as well as above.

As they question, they listen intently, hearing the nuance in what is being said. They’re looking for the insight the person they’re talking to can give.

A lot of their learning doesn’t have direct immediate application in their lives, but the store of knowledge they’re constantly building will, they know, be useful somehow, some day.

Giving the bigger picture

Imagine the scene.

Fifteen colleagues are in the meeting room, discussing some issue that’s come up. There are conflicting views as to what’s happened and why. There are also divergent views of what should be done to resolve the issue.

One of the people around the table, the leader, has been listening quietly. She leans forward, and in a few sentences, sets the problem in context, summarises the causes, and outlines the viable options, given the context.

You’ve probably witnessed that. Maybe you are the person that leans forward in that way.

Leaders always understand the bigger picture. How a problem relates to other problems. How solutions might be impacted by other solutions.

Leaders are able to understand the wider view and then convey, in very simple language, what it means for a particular situation.


Let me explain this observation by talking about non-leaders first. They find it difficult to trust. They are cautious in letting someone do something new. They are averse to trying radical approaches.

Great leaders, on the other hand, trust easily.

They let someone have a crack at something new. They encourage someone to try to perform above their level. They remain open to new ideas, and don’t reject them without giving them chance to develop. They trust their instincts: they trust other people’s instincts.

That’s not to say that they trust, and then stand back and let a disaster occur. Monitoring, supporting, steering and enthusing all follow trust being given. If things don’t work out as planned, great leaders are ruthless in changing direction, if that’s what they believe is required.

Leaders trust easily because they know that it’s the only way to find out what could happen if everyone has an opportunity to do their best.

Talent spotting

As one CEO said to me, “I’m looking for potential, not performance.”

Good leaders are talent spotters. They quickly see the core of what someone is, and imagine what they might be capable of.

Finding the talented people, putting them in charge of projects, or letting them focus on a specific area or skill, is a key job function for these leaders.

In part, they’re spotting people who can be future leaders — people who have similar traits and habits to themselves.

But because of their wider view, leaders can spot and nourish talent of people who are unlike themselves too.

You hear wonderful stories of CEOs who began in a low-paid job at the base of their organisation and rose through the ranks to the top. I’m prepared to bet that for everyone who has done that, along the way their talent was spotted by project managers, divisional heads, VPs or line managers who have that vital leadership habit.

Are you a great leader?

So, to summarise, that’s what I’ve observed. The five crucial habits that strong leaders have are spotting talent, trusting, giving the bigger picture, constant learning, and being easy to help.

Do you have those habits? How do you nurture them? How do you use them?


During the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expition of 1914–17, Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance became stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea, and drifted northwards away from their destination, held fast by pack ice. The crew stuck out the winter of 1915 aboard the ship, but it was eventually crushed by the ice. The 28 men were stranded on the ice and spent many months in makeshift camps as the ice floe continued to shrink and drift even further northwards. They were forced to take to the lifeboats and make for the uninhabited Elephant Island. In April 2016, Shackleton selected five men to make the incredibly hazardous 800 mile voyage through rough seas to South Georgia, in one of the open lifeboats. Landing on one side of South Georgia, the party had to cross 3000ft high mountains to reach the whaling station on the other coast. Shackleton begged the loan of a small whaling boat, and returned to Elephant Island, where on 30 August 1916, he rescued the remaining crew. Not one man had been lost.

There’s more at Wikipedia.

If you found this interesting, consider subscribing to get regular updates.