Biz Features

Five Deceptively Obvious Habits Successful Leaders Share

by . June 26th, 2013

Why a 12th Century Mongolian Warlord Isn’t too Different from Jon Stewart

We all want to succeed at whatever it is we do. If you’re reading this, we’d guess that successfully running a business (or businesses) is at least one of the things you’d like to be better at. If you employ more people than yourself, succeeding as a leader might not be too far behind.

If you’re looking for a specific “system” that will help you become a better leader, you should probably stop reading. Systems are things that work best when you have a lot of constants, and few variables. Run any business for a week, and you’ll immediately see that this is definitely not the case with entrepreneurship nor leadership.

It’s also clear that there is no shortage of successful leadership styles. Mark Cuban couldn’t be more different from Mark Zuckerberg, for example. Clearly, limiting yourself to different approaches to leadership can be a fatal mistake for any entrepreneur.

Instead of pitching a system that might become obsolete by the time you get around to working with it, we’ll try to offer you something better – a realistic idea of what traits all successful leaders share .

Here are just 5 traits we’ve noticed in all successful leaders. Take a look and see if you agree.

5.) Successful Leaders are Positive

Being “positive” can mean any number of things – not all of them necessarily good. Authenticity, unambiguoity, and a “can-do” attitude are just some of the things that being positive implies. Being a positive leader requires the appearance of both confidence and optimism.

In order to lead, someone must look like they are sure about what it is exactly that they say they want. When they say they want something to happen, you’d better believe they mean it.

That doesn’t mean that a leader can’t have any doubts about anything they might be forced to do. That’s normal for anyone. But successful leaders -whether in business or politics- will never be caught publicly showing they doubt whatever it is they’re doing. Whether through actions or words – it just doesn’t happen.

4.) Successful Leaders Hire the Right People

The success of any group depends heavily on the people in it.  Successful leaders, no matter how talented will always be great at finding people who might even be more talented than they are and getting them on their side.

Here’s an extreme example from nearly 800 years ago. Nearly everyone know who Genghis Khan was. Few people realize however, that while a brilliant strategist and negotiator in his own right, he couldn’t have achieved it without equally brilliant generals, the most studied of which are Jebe, a former enemy who had shot Temujin, the future Genghis Khan in the neck, and Subotai a commoner who would never have risen the ranks had Genghis Khan not implemented a meritocracy.

This desire to find people who could get the job done, regardless of history or origin allowed the Mongol Horde to amass the largest land empire up to that point, uniting peoples of different races from the Pacific all the way through Poland.

At the risk of being accused of cherry-picking, it’s safe to say that over time, successful leaders tend to choose the best people they can, whenever the chance presents itself. Meritocracies tend to outperform enterprises that rely on nepotism and cronyism, and even those based on seniority for the simple reason that they put results above most other considerations.

While there are of course, successful leaders that have chosen friends and family to do important jobs, the development of their skills tends to make all the difference.

Which brings us to our next item:

3.) Successful Leaders Develop …and Delegate

While this seems no different from #4, it’s all too possible to be a leader that hires the right people, but refuses to give them any leeway to get their job done. But what happens when you’re not around?

The whole concept of succession planning revolves around finding answers to that question.

As your enterprise grows, you will have much less time to spend on everything. Insisting on making all the decisions might be fine for a smaller business. However, everyone will eventually reach their limits. Either you won’t be able to handle everything as well as you should, or you’ll be gone for some reason – leaving confusion and a paralyzed enterprise in your wake.

Successful leaders will hire and develop people so as to make their own roles irrelevant. Take for instance, John Oliver’s recent turn as the temporary host on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. While many long-time viewers wondered if John Oliver could  fill Jon Stewart’s shoes, doubts were soon cast aside when it became obvious that Oliver -and more especially the show’s writers, were able to do just fine without Stewart.

Where other shows would likely just do reruns, here they were doing completely new material with an untested host, interviewing some of the biggest names in American and International politics and entertainment – and hardly anyone felt it was a huge deal.

Much of the credit for the show’s continued success can be given to Tim Carvell, current head of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’s writing staff, as well as all the other talented writers on the show. It’s likely that if Jon Stewart (who happens to be the executive co-producer of his own show) didn’t trust his own people to deliver in his absence, the spirit of the show would have pretty much have been gutted.

Businesses – or any movement for that matter – that become too reliant on their founders will tend to lose steam as they get larger. As we discussed in a previous article, it often takes a different  mindset to start a business than it takes to expand it. It’s never to early to realize that success early on will bring new challenges.

In the end however, for Jon Stewart and other leaders to succeed even when they’re not around means they understand the important differences in the next item.

2.) Successful Leaders Don’t Mouth Off- They Communicate

All the other items on this very short list can rest on this one fact. You probably knew this would be here as soon as you read the title. We can barely begin to count the books, articles, and talks on how to better leader by improving your communication skills. I’ve read more of these books and studies and listened to more of these talks than I care to remember , and at times I feel as if they’ve lost all meaning, just because there are so many of them.

Whether you lead in an enterprise, or lead by espousing an idea, we have to be careful to avoid being a “talker” instead of a “communicator”. Authenticity, clear intent, and openness are the two most obvious things that distinguish the two.

Buzzwords and doublespeak often go in direct opposition against authenticity and clear intent. They’ve become Dilbert fodder for good reason. Many buzzwords once meant exactly what they sounded like, and some are actually useful for summarizing complicated ideas – if you know your audience!

Through misuse by so-called leaders who either just want to sound important or don’t understand the people they’re talking to, they’ve often come to mean other things entirely. Through overuse, they can lose all of their original meaning. Anyone who values the truth would naturally bristle at the lazy thinking and dishonesty inherent in the way a lot of us use buzzwords.

Here’s the BBC’s List of 50 office-speak phrases you love to hate

Openness is a bit more complicated. While you want to listen to what the people you interact with, there has to be a limit to how much you want to act on feedback – otherwise you may end up sacrificing whatever vision you’ve had for your business, and consequently muddle your focus and undermine the substance behind your actions.

1.) Successful Leaders Build Genuine Relationships

There’s this quote by Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, an Indian scientist and administrator and 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007 that took social media by storm (well, almost) a few years back. I still remember it because it’s absolutely true.

“It is very easy to defeat someone, but it is very hard to win someone”

I would have worded it differently, but we can’t all be President of India. Because that would be oddly redundant. Like that quote. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely true. Earning someone’s lasting loyalty goes beyond monetary compensation (though that is important). It requires attention and effort.

Defeating someone on the other hand, can come quite easily. Once you have a certain amount of money and power, you can wear anyone down or deny them things they need or do any of a number of things that don’t involve you knowing them all too well.

In a corollary to that, it often takes no effort at all to make enemies, or have people dismiss what you have to say. Especially as cynicism is hardwired into our brains. Learning how to win over an employee or a supplier’s loyalty, or a rival’s respect is one of those things that every leader will have to learn by trial and error.

Why Successful Doesn’t Mean Great

You might notice that the title we chose was “successful leaders” not “great leaders”. Kim Jong Il references aside, successful dictators are hardly what most of us would call “great”.

Best-selling author and business consultant James C. Collins,  has what is probably the most popular take on the differences between truly great, from merely effective leaders. In his “Five Tier Model”, Level 5 leaders possess not only the will to succeed, but humility as well, in contrast to showier, much more prominent Level 4 leaders who are effective, but egotistical.

All-in-all, it seems fair. Humility allows for honest introspection. A leader who isn’t humble wouldn’t be able to delegate nor plan for succession as effectively. Nor would they be able to take in feedback that allows one to communicate and develop lasting relationships in a way that would leave a lasting impact.

The cynic in me suggests perhaps humility was made a critical factor for top-tier leadership since it’s seen as positive trait that might make people feel better about themselves and help Collins sell more books.

The truth is, what makes leaders “great” or “successful” is all purely subjective. Aggregate wealth and influence are just some metrics we can use.  Leaders can often be both heroes and villains all at once. A legacy that is destructive for one group of people may ultimately be constructive for others.

You probably won’t find answers on how to be a better leader in this article- but we hope that you’re now able to ask better questions.

Additional Readings and Sources

Image Credits

Soccer atomicShed via photopin cc
Banana unclefuz via photopin cc
Conversation ashraful kadir via photopin cc
Flexing William Doran via photopin cc
Imperial Crown, Scepter, and Globus Cruciger, Imperial Treasury, Vienna, Austria by Andrew Bossi via Wikimedia Commons CC
James C. Collin’s 5 Levels of Leadership by James C. Collins and Intagreat via
John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac hug by David Shankbone Wikimedia Commons CC
Subutai, Medieval Chinese Drawing


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.