Leadership Essentials: Six Key Habits to Living and Leading at Your Best

How to get the core skills to reach your potential if you’re in—or heading for—the C-Suite

Kendra Kinnison
Mar 13 · 27 min read
Image by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

When you first thought about becoming a leader, you imagined all the progress you could make…

Getting the business to grow and run more smoothly, helping people, changing policies so that they made sense. But your dreams were quickly stalled when you realized how many more problems and red tape you’d have to navigate first. You barely have enough time to see your family, your health is getting worse, and those dreams of making a difference feel like a distant memory.

There are lots of places to turn for help, but few of them know exactly what it’s like to be in the trenches.

After more than a decade in the C-suite and coaching over a thousand clients, I can help you navigate the leadership landmines so they don’t explode in your lap. You can avoid burnout, minimize health scares, and build a team that gets the job done.

In 2007, I landed in my first significant leadership role. It was amazing. I was the CFO of a $4 million company that multiplied itself many times over in the coming years. We built an exceptional team across several cities and countries, and I was constantly traveling.

Perhaps you can predict what comes next.

It almost destroyed me. My weight ballooned by more than 30 pounds. I had all sorts of odd health problems. I was exhausted and cranky, and I wasn’t very good at preventing the stress from rolling down to my teams. Within a few years, I knew I had to step away and regroup.

It was humbling, and I felt like I’d failed. I promised myself that I would be better prepared for the next opportunity. I attended dozens of conferences, read hundreds of books, listened to over 500 hours of podcast interviews, and assembled a team of mentors that I could call upon for advice.

In late 2010, I reconnected with a company I’d worked with before and soon joined their team in the senior finance role. I’d get another chance. And after Port Royal went through several general managers in a short time, I was promoted to that position. Now, I’ve got the second longest tenure in the history of the organization. (We’ve even been through a hurricane together.) It is very intense, but I’m up for the challenge.

I believe that we can learn to live and lead at our best. In fact, I know that’s true.

There’s a core set of skills that set good leaders apart from great ones. These core skills are relatively easy to adopt — but you’ll need to be intentional about developing them.

Layer by layer, you can build the habits that will support you in reaching your leadership potential.


Key Habit #1: The Daily March

“Leadership” is a verb.

It is a mindset, a choice to accept responsibility, to empower others, and to make a difference.

It is available to any of us — regardless of our age, education level, title, or any other characteristic.

Once we choose leadership, we must live it.

For that, we need a system. I call it the Daily March, adapted from the Jim Collins book Great by Choice.

Imagine you’re standing with your feet in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, looking inland. You’re about to embark on a 3,000 mile walk, from San Diego to the tip of Maine.

On the first day you march 20 miles, making it out of town. On the second day you march 20 miles. And again on the third day you march 20 miles, heading into the heat of the desert. It’s hot, more than 100 degrees, and you want to rest in the cool of your tent. But you don’t. You get up and you march 20 miles.

You keep the pace, 20 miles a day.

Then the weather cools, and you’re in comfortable conditions with the wind at your back, modulating your effort. You stick with your 20 miles.

Then you reach the Colorado high mountains and get hit by snow, wind, and temperatures below zero — and all you want to do is stay in your tent. But you get up. You get dressed. You march 20 miles.

You keep up the effort — 20 miles, 20 miles, 20 miles — then you cross into the plains, and it’s a glorious springtime, and you can go 40 or 50 miles in a day. But you don’t. You sustain your pace, marching 20 miles.

And eventually, you get to Maine.

Now, imagine another person who starts out with you on the same day in San Diego. He gets all excited by the journey and logs 40 miles the first day.

Exhausted from his first gigantic day, he wakes up to 100 degree temperatures. He decides to hang out until the weather cools, thinking “I’ll make it up when conditions improve.” He maintains this pattern — big days with good conditions, whining and waiting in his tent on bad days — as he moves across the western United States.

Just before the Colorado high mountains, he gets a spate of great weather and he goes all out, logging 40 to 50 mile days to make up lost ground. But then he hits a huge winter storm when utterly exhausted. It nearly kills him and he hunkers down in his tent, waiting for spring.

When spring finally comes, he emerges, weakened, and stumbles off toward Maine. By the time he enters Kansas City, you, with your relentless 20-mile march, have already reached the tip of Maine. You win, by a large margin.

Collins goes on to explain, “The 20-mile march is more than a philosophy. It’s about having concrete, clear, intelligent, and rigorously pursued performance mechanisms that keep you on track. The 20-mile march creates two types of self-imposed discomfort: (1) the discomfort of unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions, and (2) the discomfort of holding back in good conditions.” This practice is particularly important for leaders.

We set the pace.

If we’re inconsistent, our teams will be too. If we seem to never leave the office, our teams will wonder if they should be pulling all-nighters too.

If we can find and demonstrate a sustainable rhythm, our teams will understand that consistent progress towards goals is what we’re seeking.

“Financial markets are out of your control. Customers are out of your control. Earthquakes are out of your control. Global competition is out of your control. Technological change is out of your control. Most everything is ultimately out of your control. But when you 20-mile march, you have a tangible point of focus that keeps you and your team moving forward, despite confusion, uncertainty, and even chaos.” — Jim Collins

It might also prevent some of the downsides of a workaholic culture: high healthcare costs, decreased brain mass in the prefrontal cortex (not a good thing for decision-making), or disengagement.

We must take care of ourselves.

The familiar flight instruction captures it well, “Please secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” If we’re not taking care of our own health and well being, we’ll eventually be unable to provide an environment where others can be healthy as well.

“It is scarcely news that inadequate nutrition, exercise, sleep, and rest diminish people’s basic energy levels, as well as their ability to manage their emotions and focus their attention. Nonetheless, many executives don’t find ways to practice consistently healthy behaviors, given all the other demands in their lives.” — Tony Schwartz

By including basic health commitments in our Daily March, these habits will remain key elements within our days. Even 10 minutes of meditation and a walking meeting for 20 minutes can have a significant positive impact over time.

We must keep learning.

Our world is changing at a pace never before seen. To lead our communities and organizations to a better future, it’s essential that we make time for learning.

“I was at a dinner party recently with a guy who’s probably one of the top ten finance people in the world. At one point he said, “Do you know what the biggest problem is with big-company CEOs? They don’t read enough.” Isn’t it intriguing that’s number one on his list? We’ve always had to keep up. But now we need to be students in a way that maybe we haven’t been before.” — Tom Peters

30 minutes of an audiobook on a commute or setting aside 15 minutes to read before bed will result in several completed books each month. In particular, this is one area where small daily commitments trump heroic “crams” when urgency strikes.

The Daily March consists of two main sections: morning and end-of day.

Morning

The focus of the morning section is to orient and prepare us to make good choices and decisions.

  • What is your mission/purpose?
  • What matters most today?
  • What am I thankful for today?
  • Which morning habits set me up for success?

For many of us, the investment of time for healthy habits reminds us of our goals. Reviewing our priorities and schedule will return exponential dividends throughout the day. We’ll be calmer, more focused, and better able to balance the urgent needs of the day and our longer-term commitments.

End-of-Day

The focus of the second section is to reflect back on our actions and decisions, making note of successes to capture and growth opportunities identified.

  • What successes did I experience today?
  • What challenges?
  • What did I learn today? How will I grow?
  • Who do I need to follow up with?
  • Which end-of-day habits help me wind down, sleep well, and prepare for the next day?

While much attention is given to morning routines and their link to peak performance, growth comes from struggle and reflection. To continue to develop as a leader, the second half of the march is essential. Without it, you and your organization are likely to stagnate.


Key Habit #2: The Schedule Template

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard

As a leader, one of the most important benefits we can give our teams is to be organized and intentional. It’s also one of the best feelings we can give ourselves.

After coaching hundreds of leaders, I’m convinced that the best place to start is with our time. Once we master it, we can achieve anything. Without having it under control, little feels possible.

Based on an exercise I learned from Michael Hyatt, the key is to design a template for your week.

Here are the steps to create a Schedule Template for your life.

Step 1: Access the template and save a copy for yourself.

Step 2: Insert blocks for what’s truly mandatory in your life right now.

Have a high standard for mandatory. This step isn’t the shoulds. Only the musts.

Be sure to include key meetings, commutes, meals, and anything else that you spend time doing.

Step 3: Start filling in your remaining commitments.

Don’t forget about sleep, exercise, or family activities. This template should incorporate every aspect of your life. One life equals one calendar.

Step 4: Think strategically about your blocks.

A few ideas:

Step 5: Track your actual time compared to your template.

What’s different? What adjustments could you make?

There are all sorts of apps that can help us track time, but ol’ fashioned pen and paper is still my favorite. Here’s a simple template you can download and print to see where you’re actually spending time.

Next steps:

I started to create a sixth step for continued adjustments. The truth is we’re never “done.” Life changes. Our goals and commitments change, and so should our schedules. I think it’s a good habit to revisit your template during your weekly review.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What if my work requires me to be responsive?

This is a challenge for many of us. There are a few different ways you can approach this.

One, shift your wake time so that you fit in your priorities before you need to be in responsive mode. If you need to be available at 9 am, wake at 5 am with a focused morning routine, and then have two 60-minute work sprints planned. Surprisingly, this can be a very productive technique. You might save your workout or another planned activity for the evening to help transition again from reactive time to personal time.

Or, is it possible to question your assumptions? Does your work truly require real-time responsiveness, or could you group similar activities and batch them throughout the day or week? Perhaps you could explore the expectations for response times, and see about carving out blocks of time for focused work. Do pay attention to the difference between maker-work and manager-work, and plan transitions where they are helpful.

What if other people can schedule meetings that I must attend?

Dealing with this proactively starts with the approach from above. You can also layer on a calendar tool that takes the back-and-forth out of scheduling meetings and also preserve your planned-work time. Essentially, you’re able to share a link to your calendar, and let the recipient pick from available times.

I use Schedule Once, and I know several folks that are happy with Calendly.

My current schedule is very different from my plan. Where should I start?

If one particular task feels overwhelmingly important, start with that.

If you just need a restart in general, start with a consistent bedtime. If you go to bed by the desired time, chances are you’ll wake up on time, too. That’ll allow you to roll right into your morning routine. This is also a perfect time to start implementing your Daily March.


Key Habit #3: The Weekly Review

Just as books start with dedications, I first want to acknowledge the folks that inspired my thinking in this area.

David Allen’s ground-breaking system for Getting Things Done (GTD) revolutionized my personal organization more than a decade ago. Taylor Pearson is quickly becoming the philosopher and thought-leader for our time, and his article tailored for entrepreneurs took my mind in a new direction. And the dozens of folks I coach at Port Royal or through Coach.me gift me wonderful new perspectives to consider.

If there’s a silver bullet for being an effective leader, the Weekly Review process would be it.

Leaders simply must pause regularly to look up, down, and around. Once in a while is not enough.

When the leader isn’t focused, organized, and stable, the organization suffers. The same is true for families, churches, teams, or any other unit.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. — Proverbs 29:18

As you might have guessed, I’ve learned the importance of this the hard way. I’ve seen the suffering and unnecessary stress, and I’ve realized that I was often the cause. That hurt.

And I wasn’t alone.

Here’s what others have shared with me.

“I feel completely overwhelmed nearly every single day and even though I know I am “doing” a lot of things, I don’t feel as though I’m actually progressing towards anything important.”

“Many people depend on me, and I often feel like I’m letting them down and squandering my opportunities. And that doesn’t feel good.”

“I want to develop a clear focus so that I prioritize my time better.”

“I lie awake thinking about all the balls I have in the air and just waiting for them to drop, and for me to lose all my clients and my business.”

But there’s a silver lining. If we’re responsible for the problem, that means we can fix it.

We often talk of leadership being a responsibility and a sacrifice, and I think this practice is a huge part of that.

“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead, and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.” — Simon Sinek

We can always find excuses or reasons that we don’t have the time, and there’s usually no one to question that. But that’s not the real challenge. We know that this practice often leads to scary, difficult, or complicated situations, and we just don’t want to face them. (At least not right now.) So we stay in reactive mode, diligently participating in the latest fire drill and convincing ourselves that we’re busy enough. We can do better.

By using a roadmap, we can guide ourselves through the process and push through mental hurdles.

Step 1: Gather thoroughly.

Just like the children’s book, we’ll be sure to look…

  • Up: reviewing our mission, goals, projects, and other plans.
  • Down: reviewing KPI’s, reports, customer surveys, and other feedback on our organization’s performance.
  • Around: clearing our email inboxes, notes, piles of mail, or other inputs.

Step 2: Question and reflect.

After we’ve looked in every corner and gathered the critical information, it’s time to assess. I call it raising the “BAR,” and it reminds me not to get stuck in any one perspective. Goals, projects, and people are all important, and we’ve got to make sure more than just the squeaky wheel is getting the grease.

  • Big picture: What main adjustments are needed? Are goals and projects on track?
  • Actions: What actions are needed? Who can do them?
  • Relationships: Am I making the time for the key people in my life? Is each of my teams set up for success?

Step 3: Plan in detail.

Get organized. When it’s time to execute, vagueness becomes another barrier to overcome. While you’re in planning mode, take the time to be specific. You’ll thank yourself later, and so will your team.

  • Schedule: block out time for your non-negotiables. These could be required meetings, planned family time, daily meditation or exercise, focused project time, or any priority that needs your undivided attention.
  • Set agendas: make note of the topics and feedback you’ll want to discuss at upcoming team meetings or one-on-ones. Even better if you can send them in advance so your team feels prepared.
  • Communicate: if you have specific expectations, share them. Often, I’ll go into Basecamp and leave discussion notes to make sure the key aspects of a project are considered. Or, I’ll make a quick video to share background on why a project is important. And if you have concerns with a team member’s performance, address it early. Don’t put off having the tough conversations until it can’t be avoided.

Step 4: Get accountability firmly in place.

This is the force multiplier we often forget.

  • Checklists: they may seem mundane, but their power is hardly matched. Make yourself a list of weekly recurring responsibilities (or put them in Remember the Milk). Make detailed checklists for anything you do often. Your effectiveness will skyrocket overnight.
  • Mastermind groups: fancy name, simple concept. Find a group of 3–4 folks that share your ambition, work ethic, and values. Have a weekly (or even daily) call where you share your key action items for the week and report back on your progress from last week. You can also talk through common challenges and share ideas for overcoming them.
  • Negative consequences: we’re wired to feel losses much stronger than wins. Use that to your advantage. Make an agreement to give money to the opposite of your favorite charity if you don’t hit an established milestone. It might sound crazy, but it absolutely works.

Other considerations

When should I do this?

Most of my team does their weekly reviews or reports between Friday and Monday, so if I do it at the same time, my information is a week old. I’ve started carving out Tuesdays to ensure that our feedback loops are tight. Think through the normal reporting cycles in your organization, and pick a time when you’ll have fresh information.

How long does it take?

About half a day. Some of that time is just sitting and thinking. If I cut it short, I always regret it. To get rolling, maybe set aside 2–3 hours and adjust from there.

Where should I do this?

I need quiet, so I usually bring my current project files and work from home Tuesday mornings. If you can pause interruptions, the office is probably better so that you have all of your files handy.

Is this for work stuff or personal stuff?

I don’t think you can separate the two. You have one life, so you should only have one calendar and one organization system. And you won’t last long in leadership if you’re not fulfilling your obligations and taking care of yourself. It all goes together.

What software do you use?

  • Remember the Milk: for maintenance items and personal actions. This is the perfect app for remembering recurring tasks (like approving payroll or giving medicine to the dog).
  • Basecamp: for project plans, checklists, and timelines. There are a million choices for project management software. My teams steadily choose this one, and we use it daily for hundreds of projects.
  • Khorus: for getting real-time feedback on whether your team feels like its goals are achievable.
  • Evernote: for evolving narratives (like the ideal day, goals, etc.) or meeting agenda notes. Also great for reference items.
  • Schedule Once: for allowing others to schedule time with you. The $9 plan allows you to set “office hours” and then allow automatic booking so you eliminate scheduling volleyball.

Key Habit #4: Masterful Meetings

There’s no shortage of jokes or complaints about how horrible meetings can be. They’re boring. They’re pointless. They’re a waste of time.

Leaders know better.

Leaders know that meetings are essential for excellence. Leaders know that meetings are the ultimate lever, capable of producing exponential results.

Tom Peters even calls meetings “Leadership Opportunity #1.”

The idea of using “meeting” and “excellence” in the same sentence may strike you as absurd. But, again, if meetings are your principal leadership stage, then they must either be the platform for the aspiration and expression of excellence or you are not serious about excellence.

A meeting for the leader is pure, unadulterated theater.

It is the stage on which you express your aspirations and values. The stage on which you demonstrate your approach to inquiry that you aim to instill throughout the organization. The stage on which you cajole others to hop aboard and stay aboard. The stage on which the notions of accountability for actions is forged.

A meeting worth calling is a meeting worthy of intensive preparation. Your aim is to be high - and strategic. Even when the topic is "trivial."

Every meeting that does not stir the imagination and curiosity of attendees and increase bonding and cooperation and engagement and sense of worth and motivate rapid action and enhance performance enthusiasm is a permanently lost opportunity.

For your leadership “theater” to be successful, there are several “performances” you’ll need to master and add to your portfolio.

Each is essential to your team’s continued alignment and effectiveness.

The Daily Huddle

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.” — Zig Ziglar

One of the most powerful forces we can leverage is consistency, and an effective way to do that is with a daily huddle. Our morning Stand-Up lasts less than 10 minutes and brings all functional shift leaders together to share key operational information and any potential obstacles. It quickly keeps all departments informed and provides needed context for decisions they’ll make throughout the day. (We actually have an afternoon huddle as well, as we operate 24/7.)

I’ve also seen several variations on this theme that organizations can utilize. Southwest Michigan First, an economic development organization, holds a scrum at 8:05am to ensure their continued success. Motivational speaker Eric Thomas has a phone call with his accountability group every morning.

My favorite example of this power of this dedication comes from the Team of Teams, the story of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq under General Stanley McChrystal. Each day revolved around a 90-minute Operations & Intelligence Briefing that eventually involved thousands of participants all around the globe. On a podcast, McChrystal noted that one focused hour enabled every team to make the most of the next 23.

The Weekly Regroup

“The day soldiers stop bring you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.” — General Colin Powell

Estimates are that the average worker exchanges between 100 and 120 emails a day and spends several hours processing it. A weekly regroup is an effective way to reduce email overload and keep projects and teams moving forward.

Throughout the week, teams can use a project management software (such as Asana or Basecamp) or even a simple shared Google doc to note completed tasks and capture questions as they arise. Weekly, in-person or on a conference call, the team can review progress and talk through challenges. (Personally, I think Khorus is fabulous for this.)

This type of meeting is also another opportunity for leaders to share the vision and perspective for why the project is important. Repeatedly providing this higher level of context helps the team stay aligned and focus on the appropriate priorities.

The Pre-Mortem

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation . . . nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned — and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.” — Seneca

Historically used by estate planners and livestock inspectors, this type of pre-event planning is the meeting equivalent of a superfood. The benefits go beyond the obvious of averting disaster and contingency planning. Because of the way conversations evolve, this type of gathering is particularly useful for sharing context and background.

The Stoics called it premeditatio malorum — premeditation of evils. And that’s the first step — get everyone in a room and brainstorm about bad things that could happen. The goal is to anticipate all of the potential problems that could occur, and then concentrate on finding solutions or preventions to the ones that could do major damage.

Some might say that all this negative thinking is pessimistic and brings people down, but the truth is actually the opposite. Your team will feel more confident than ever knowing that there’s a plan for any major “evils” that could arise. This type of meeting also helps build camaraderie because it’s explicitly clear why teamwork is essential for success.

To give this “performance” a try, look at your calendar for the next launch, special event, or crunch time that challenges your normal operations. Schedule a time when everyone involved can gather together without interruption, set the stage by describing the goal for the meeting, and then turn the team loose to brainstorm. Once you have an exhaustive list, facilitate the ranking process and focus on the key solutions.

The One-on-One

“In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally.” — Ben Horowitz

Widely considered one of America’s best CEO’s, Andy Grove spoke frequently on the power of individual meetings. He considered them one of the highest value investments a leader can make.

For this “performance,” the key is to focus on listening. As Horowitz explains, “this is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas, and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email, and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.” If the team member doesn’t eagerly share about these areas, the leader should invite conversation with questions.

  • Tell me about what you’ve been working on.
  • Are you happy working here?
  • What are you excited about?
  • What drives you crazy or worries you?
  • What suggestions do you have?
  • What else would you like to work on or learn? What can I do that would be helpful?

As with any show, canceling a performance is a big deal and shouldn’t happen often. Regularly postponing or canceling one-on-ones with your team members sends the message that you’re not interested in their success or not capable of supporting them.

On the other hand, if team members understand how their role supports the company’s success and feel supported by their leader, they’ll stay engaged through the toughest of times.


Key Habit #5: Navigating the One-on-One

Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms. — Ben Horowitz

Let’s focus on how to get this process started.

I’ve tried three different approaches:

A — At your next team meeting, announce that you’re going to be having meetings with each person in the next week.

B — Set appointments with each person on your team without much explanation.

C — Call your team member and ask if you can come by their office in a few minutes. Repeat.

In my experiences, all but C have been a disaster. Folks worried that something bad was about to happen, or that they were in trouble. It turned a positive intention into a massive distraction.

For most of us, this means reducing the amount of time between the team knowing about the first meeting and actually having it. Go with Nike on this one. Just do it.

Hopefully you’re now sitting in their office.

There’s a good chance they’re feeling anxious. Your first goal is to put them at ease.

“Jane, I’ve been recently learning about how to be a better leader, and I realize that one of the most important things I can spend time on is making sure you achieve your goals. If you’re doing well, chances are I am too. So, would it be okay if we started talking about that?”

Depending on how different this is from your normal conversation, they may be looking at you like you just grew a third eye. That’s okay. Keep going.

“Can you tell me about what you’ve been working on?”

“What part of it is the most fun for you?”

“Are you running into any obstacles?”

“What suggestions do you have?”

“What else would you like to work on or learn?”

“What can I do that would be helpful?”

Try not to end the conversation without finding one helpful thing you can do, even if it’s incredibly simple.

Fix their sticking door or replace their worn-out chair. Order a small heater if their office is freezing. Facilitate a meeting with another department to get alignment.

The key is to identify something tangible and commit to it.

As you close, set up a time to meet in again in one week. (Two, if you must.) “Think about what we talked about, and let’s talk more next week. I want to be more supportive.”

In many cases, the first meeting will feel like cutting your lawn with scissors — a massive amount of preparation and listening for little feedback.

That’s natural. It can take a while to build trust, especially if your organization’s culture has historically been competitive or gossip-filled. It may take a few meetings before your team members are comfortable asking for your help. To do so, they’ll need to be vulnerable.

The only way to overcome this is to go through it.

At each meeting, make a commitment and deliver on it — with no strings attached. (That’s what leaders do.)

Do that for a few weeks in a row, and you’ll be shocked at how much communication will improve.

(And that intro line about you succeeding when they do? It’s more than a conversation starter. It’s true.)

About a year ago, I was also filling a director-level position and added that team to my one-on-one list. When I started the conversation with one manager by saying that I wanted to know what I could do to be supportive, her jaw dropped. She replied that she thought I didn’t like her. Her feelings were based on our morning interactions (or lack thereof). I had often passed her office in the hallway without saying hello.

Needless to say, I had no idea that my actions were being interpreted this way. I listen to podcasts on my long commute and would often hustle to my office to make notes or take a quick action before I forgot. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t acknowledging people. When I asked some other team members, they replied that they thought I was mad in the mornings.

I can’t tell you how thankful I was for the feedback from the first manager. And I’d likely have never received it if I hadn’t been committed to one-on-one meetings and asking real questions.


Key Habit #6: Clarity of Vision

Walt Disney had a vision of a place where children and parents could have fun together. First glimpsed on his television show, Disney’s vivid imagination and ability to share his dreams with others would bring the magical park to life. As he understood, “you can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

For many of us, we’re so ready to get to work that we often forget the important step of clarifying our goals. We roll up our sleeves and jump right in. And perhaps that’s okay.

If there’s enough low-hanging fruit, leaders can likely escape this essential for a time. But eventually, the symptoms will emerge — conflicting priorities and special projects, discontent or burned out team members, stalled progress.

If our teams reach that stage (or ideally, before), it’s time to regroup. It’s time to rethink our purpose and vision.

  • Who do we serve?
  • Why does our work matter?
  • What values or qualities are essential to our work?
  • What would happen if we didn’t show up and deliver?

Without clarity in the answers to those questions, it’s impossible to know what a “good job” is. Customers can’t have clarity in what to expect. And our teams can’t have clarity in how to deliver.

Perspective helps

Few of us experience work environments free of pressure or stress. Today’s world is intense! One of the best ways to manage stress is to keep perspective as we encounter challenges. Clarity in our purpose and values helps guide our decision-making, particularly when a sacrifice is required.

Pretend we have a hotel with four options for guests to enjoy their meals, and it usually requires 20 team members for a successful shift. But today, there’s a terrible accident and only 15 team members can get to work. How do we navigate that? There’s no easy answer.

Let’s check our mission: to present an excellent performance so that guests create memories to last a lifetime. What’s our key value? Excellence. Okay, so that tells us to reduce the number of outlets open to ensure that each guest receives quality service.

Without a clear mission, it’s tough to know whether to close an option or just limp through the service period with poor service. Now the department leader wrestles with both the original problem and the fear of making the wrong decision. That’s compounded stress.

With clarity, the decision is made, and the team can move forward with serving guests.

If the CEO doesn’t have perspective and clarity, it’s likely none of the team does either. Their vision is inherently limited. No one can see farther than the leader.

At all levels

There’s also a perception that this is only the work of the CEO or most senior leader. Certainly, it is. And it’s equally important at every level.

Who does the accounting department serve? The maintenance department? What does success look like for each of those departments?

Particularly if those teams don’t serve our customers directly, it’s important to understand how their service enables other teams to carry out the mission. There’s two components to that understanding — initial clarity in the department’s purpose, and ensuring ongoing alignment over time.

My favorite resource for the initial exercise is Tom Peters’ Reinventing Work: the Professional Service Firm 50. (And it’s finally available in Kindle — yay!) The subtitle says it all: 50 ways to transform your department into a professional service firm whose trademarks are passion and innovation.

Once the purpose is clear, it’s just as key to keep alignment. The best tool we’ve found for that is Khorus.

By using quarterly goals that cascade throughout the organization, we can quickly see that supporting initiatives are critical. Or, we can see that multiple departments are focused on the same challenge from different perspectives , and that they’ll need to coordinate together.

For a hotel, one of the biggest challenges is keeping rooms at their best. Housekeeping certainly plays a role. As does facilities. And in our case, renovations are approved by each individual owner. Those multiple perspectives are easy to forget, especially when we’re focused. By always keeping goals linked, we have a built-in visual reminder.

Repeat and tattoo

Maybe getting a tattoo is a bit extreme, but that’s how close we need to be to our visions. We must also find opportunities to repeat and reinforce the message. And we must recognize all of the noise that can get in the way.

For us, that’s twice-daily Stand-Up meetings, weekly leadership team meetings, and weekly All Hands meetings. To close the All Hands, we read our mission together. At first, it felt a bit corny, but now there are multiple volunteers to lead each week.

(And as I’m writing this, I’m realizing we can do better on this one. If you have a great example, please share. I’d love new ideas!)

Decision time

Once we’ve clarified the vision and are committed to reinforcing it with our actions and our words, we enable our team to make a key decision - whether they want to adopt the goal as well.

This is particularly helpful during the interview process, and it’s also relevant for existing team members. When the vision is this clear, team members understand that they must find a way to link their personal purposes to the company’s, or likely move on.

And that’s a good thing. They’re free to find somewhere that would be a better fit. The company is freed from dealing with continuous discontent or frustration. If there’s an inherent conflict, it’s best to resolve it as soon as possible.

For example, one of our core values is “keep getting better.” That usually requires extra training meetings and regular updates to our processes. For a person that isn’t comfortable with frequent change, we’re likely not a good fit. There’s no right or wrong, just conflicting values.

Clarity helps us both move forward.


Getting Started with the Six Habits

Mastering these six habits will make you a better leader. I’ve seen hundreds of executives, entrepreneurs, parents, and other leaders make this journey successfully. The key is getting started and making progress consistently. My recommendation is to take them on in order and focus on adding a new habit layer each week.

First, decide on your Daily March. Commit to the morning and evening focus times — even 5 minutes each is enough to start the rhythm.

The following week, sketch out your schedule template. In most cases, you’ll spot areas of inherent conflict or stress, and areas of opportunity. Focus on making one small adjustment at a time.

As you can, carve out two hours for your Weekly Review. Print the outline and focus on the first three sections: gathering, reflection, and planning. Over time, you can add the fourth.

Once you’re feeling in rhythm, think about how well your meetings are “performing.” Are they quality theater? If not, what small adjustments could make them better?

As your group meetings are more productive, it’s a good time to turn focus to your one-on-one meetings. Pick a week with available time, and make it a point to spend time with each of your direct reports. Remember that the first meeting can be focused on re-establishing the relationship and communicating that you care.

Finally, if you’re finding that your team’s progress is stalling, set aside time to clarify your vision. Does it need a refresh or update? As you get clarity for yourself, be sure to share that with your team. They’ll welcome the focus, too!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Kendra Kinnison

Written by

Author, Royal Resilience: Our Story of Surviving and Thriving After Hurricane Harvey. General Manager, @portroyalresort. Leadership and Resilience Coach.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.