16 habits for every modern leader

The world around us is changing, and leaders are having to evolve. Not only are we seeing massive generational differences manifest themselves across our global workforce, but we are also facing a growing shift towards remote working and mental health awareness.

Further to this, social media and open review sites such as Glassdoor are forcing employers to be more accountable. We believe this is a good thing – but we also recognize that it’s a challenge to navigate.

So we’ve picked out some of the most effective ideas and angles we’ve seen by some of the most successful modern leaders in the world today. If you want to improve your influence and become a better leader in this evolving world of work, then these 16 habits are for you.

1. Take risks

Great leaders are willing to take risks. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with being risk averse – but if you constantly try to play it safe, then you might not be modern leader material.

The good thing about risk-taking is that it’s a win-win situation. Or, as Dr Sharon Porter puts it, writing for Forbes: “You win or you learn.”

Dr Porter explains that taking risks means moving forward despite fear and/or uncertainty. If your risk pays off, great. But if it doesn’t? Then at least you learn a lesson – we cannot grow as leaders, without experiencing discomfort along the way.

Remember though, that taking risks does not mean behaving erratically. As a leader, you should still aim to calculate your risks and prepare for the different potential outcomes. This does not mean there’s no chance of failure – failure will, and should, be an outcome, as we’ll see in point two below.

2. Make mistakes

So many leaders are afraid of making mistakes. This is perhaps because one of the more outdated schools of thought is that leaders should be perfect, and all-knowing. This is, of course, far from true.

Modern leaders show the people they lead that it is OK to get things wrong. They create a safe environment where people are not afraid to step out of their comfort zone, and where they are not punished for making mistakes. And the best way to create this environment is to lead by example – by making mistakes yourself. Not only will this help others, but you’ll learn and develop as a person, too.

But while understanding the benefits of making mistakes may be a trait of modern leaders, it’s certainly not a new concept. After all, it was Albert Einstein who famously said that “anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

3. Smash the glass ceiling

If you think that something is too ambitious to achieve, then chances are you’ll never achieve it. Not because you can’t, but because you’re putting a glass ceiling over your ambitions.

This behavior rubs off on the people you’re trying to lead – which is why you should always shoot for the stars.

Sure, you might not always get where you’re going. But you’ve got to at least believe you can. Modern leaders don’t place limits on success.

4. Stop micromanaging

Micromanagement is such an ineffective practice, yet there are still dense pockets where this outdated practice continues to crush true productivity.

In almost all situations, employees are less productive when you try to manage their time for them. Not only does it feel condescending, but you can make people feel like they’re trapped. What’s more, you’re basically telling people that you don’t trust them to take care of their own responsibilities.

Modern leaders set goals and outcomes, but they don’t try to dictate every single step required to get there.

5. Practice situational humility

In a fantastic Ted Talk on the topic of Teaming, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson says that in all situations where teams succeed, the leader shows situational humility.

Situational humility is recognizing that you’re probably not the key expert in any given situation. Or, as Amy Edmondson describes it, “when teaming works, you can be sure that leaders at all levels were crystal clear that they didn’t have all the answers.”

When you stop trying to play the part of supreme expert and start recognizing the expertise of those around you, people will respect you more as a leader – which is why modern leaders practice situational humility.

6. Do something fun with your team

Forget team-building exercises and workshops. Stop thinking about constructive games that focus on trust. And instead, do something fun with your team. Something 100% unrelated to work.

Look, team building is not bad. But the best leaders in this day and age understand the importance of simply having fun with their teams – and this means temporarily forgetting the need to achieve something as a result of it.

Read more: 31 games to play at work

This is fun for fun’s sake.

Go bowling. Play some basketball. Watch a movie. Host a stand up comedy evening. Buy a ping pong table and randomly challenge people to a game during the day.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as the pure focus is fun, and nothing else.

7. Ask lots of questions

Modern leaders ask questions. No, not questions like “why did you take so long on your lunch break?” Questions like “what’s the best way to do X?”, or “which software would you recommend for Y?”

When you ask for the expertise of the people you lead, you will help them to feel more valuable. But you’ll also learn a ton of stuff yourself!

Remember that the goal of a modern leader should be to ask lots of questions – but the magic ingredient is curiosity, not interrogation.

8. Lead by example

Long gone are the days of dictating what you want from your leather chair. Modern leaders climb right into the trenches with the people they’re leading.

If you want to demonstrate a good telephone manner, then start answering the phone to your customers. And if you want employees to take a real break during their lunch hour, stop working through yours.

What people see you doing, they will assume it’s what you want from them. So lead by example, and good results tend to follow.

9. Hire people with soft skills

There was once a time when “soft skills” got a lot of sneers. You know, like “so what if you’re a people person!? It doesn’t make you good at your job!”

But actually, soft skills are becoming some of the most sought-after qualities to add to your team. Skills like empathy, compassion, curiosity and creativity – they’re all so very important for helping a team move smoothly.

Soft skills are also the hardest skills for machines to replicate. Machines have not yet mastered creativity, empathy, or even true curiosity. So as artificial intelligence continues to become a bigger part of our daily lives, modern leaders are finding that the “human side” of humans is becoming more important than ever.

10. Encourage people to disagree with you

It’s easy to surround yourself with “yes men”. After all, it feels good when people validate your decisions.

But if you allow people to simply agree with you for the sake of an easy life, then you’re going to quickly end up leading your team into an echo chamber of confirmation bias. That’s not a good thing.

One habit that some modern leaders have started playing with, is requiring at least one person to disagree with them on any important point that they make. For example, even if the whole team agrees that something is a great idea, it’s a fun exercise to ask one person to volunteer to play “the other side” of the argument and try to convince you that your idea is wrong.

Not only does this force you to look at both sides of any given situation, but it gives your team members the confidence to give you their best, and most honest opinions, every time.

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11. Create tribes, not departments

One of the most old-school images of leadership is the traditional top-down hierarchy. Somebody sits at the top, giving orders to a bunch of people directly beneath, who give orders to a bunch of orders beneath, ad nauseam. This leads to the creation of “departments” – which has, to some extent, worked out OK for many organisations over the course of modern history.

But we are in an even more modern age. An age of mobile working. And in our current age, people jump from role to role faster than they’ve ever done before. People are working together with people they’ve never even met, and they’re spending less time becoming specialists in one area, and more time learning a variety of hobbies and skills that can be applied to all sorts of different projects and scenarios.

Let’s call these different projects “tribes”. And instead of seeing them as a distraction from a person’s main job, let’s look at them as opportunities to achieve rapid business outcomes. You see, when you facilitate the creation of tribes, you may find that your business becomes more agile – and that the people you lead can apply their skills far more effectively.

Instead of boxing each person into a specific department, modern leaders are exploring this idea of “tribes”, as a way of quickly throwing the best individuals into a particular project in order to achieve a particular outcome.

Think of each tribe as a circle on a piece of paper. Sure, sometimes the circles may need stand-alone, and require a very specialised skill set. But often, they may overlap, requiring people to come together from different backgrounds, to achieve outcomes that are not easily assigned to a specific department.

This may sound a little new age, and in a way, it is. But it’s the direction the world is moving, which is why modern leaders are focusing less on departmental hierarchies and more on outcome-based tribes.

12. Don’t dictate working patterns or styles

It might not feel comfortable when an employee decides to take a three-hour break in the middle of the day… but who are you to judge how that person works the best?

There are more ways to manage your time than I can count. Forbes lists twenty excellent time management ideas right here, and they barely scratch the surface. And the reason so many exist, is because different people tend to get along with different techniques, depending on their personality.

Not everybody conforms well to a 9am start and a 5pm finish, with an hour in the middle for lunch. Some people like to work twenty minutes on, with a twenty-minute rest… all day! Others find they are super productive for the first three hours in a day, and then they slump – but maybe they’re more productive in those first three hours than their colleague might be in a week.

The best way to stop trying to dictate working patterns or styles is to get away from the “time trap” – the outdated notion that time-spent-working is the most effective measure of productivity. It usually isn’t. For some people, it might be – perhaps if they have a repetitive, manual, scalable job, for example. But even then, there are plenty of theories arguing for a break from the standard 9-5 for even the most transactional of workers.

Modern leaders let people carve their own ways of working.

13. Be different

Have you ever noticed that the people who influence you the most in life, tend to be a bit… well, a bit weird?

Alright, we’re not saying you should force yourself to act weird. Don’t go making hats out of bananas and dancing in the street, if that’s not what you’re genuinely about. But you should certainly not put a lid on what makes you, you!

Exceptional modern leaders tend not to be afraid to be themselves. This is usually because they’re not seeking recognition or approval – they’re just bossing life by enjoying their own style. And often, it’s these quirks that give leaders an edge.

14. Say thanks

The power of a simple thanks is often underestimated. In fact, leading global analytics firm Gallup, claims that recognition is one of the highest-impact lowest-cost ways to motivate other people.

In a nutshell, the reason recognition works well as a motivator, is because top performers need to know their efforts are recognized and valued – at least, that is, if you want them to continue performing!

The way many modern leaders are trying to embrace recognition more effectively is by making sure to say thanks more often. If you spot somebody doing something good, take a moment to thank them. Don’t be afraid of over-thanking – as long as you’re thanking people for things they’ve actually done, it will go down a treat.

Read more: The importance of trust in employee recognition and rewards (PODCAST)

Of course, you must be careful not to get trigger-happy without a real cause for saying thanks. If you start thanking people for nothing, in particular, your words will quickly become empty shells that are more likely to reduce your authenticity and reduce your influence as a leader.

15. Ban emails after working hours

Professor Sir Cary Cooper may have been born in 1940, but he continues to push the envelope when it comes to modernizing the way we think of leadership and people management. It’s no wonder he is a massive global influencer with his own Wikipedia page.

One of Sir Cary’s biggest and most recent proposals for modern leaders, has been to ban emails after working hours. And he doesn’t mean “encourage people not to check their email after work” – he means literally ban emails outside of working hours.

In short, his reasoning for this is that it’s really good for employee wellbeing. And actually, he’s not the only expert to have argued for this case. In France, it even became the law in 2017 – they gave employees the legal right to disconnect, and lawsuits have been successfully raised (and settled) against employers breaching this legislation.

16. Embrace change

Leaders need to be stubborn at times and stick to their guns. But you should never reject change simply because it feels uncomfortable.

Leaders who constantly reject change end up consigned to the archives gathering dust. And that’s why modern leaders embrace change, even if their instincts tell them to stick with what they know.

Expert John Mattone explains that “growing comfortable with change nurtures courage, the willingness to take risks, resilience, and maturity.”

So whether it’s a new system, a new approach to working, a new idea, or simply a new setting, try to keep an open mind when things around you threaten to change.