5 Overlooked Habits of Great Leaders

UPDATED: February 7, 2016
PUBLISHED: February 3, 2016

Most leaders want to be great at what they do, but far too many fall short. Why is that? What do great leaders have that not-so-great ones don’t?

There are many ingredients that go into the leadership mix: organizational skills, effective communication, and character traits like courage, confidence and clarity. But while each of these ingredients is important for great leadership, none are the starting point. For leaders to be truly great, they must start with personal habits—because the right personal habits act like a mixing bowl for enhancing skills and character traits. 

Related: Rohn: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

Here are five personal habits that can greatly enhance the flavor of your leadership. What makes this list different than others is that many of them habits are often overlooked:

1. Great leaders lead themselves first.

This leadership habit is stated so often it’s almost a leadership cliché, but have you considered the reason why it creates greatness? It’s not what you might think.

The accepted wisdom is that the best leaders lead themselves first because their team will never go beyond where the leader herself goes, but this reason is secondary for great leaders. The primary reason great leaders lead themselves first is their unwavering commitment to being the best version of themselves. Their passion to be great in every situation and at all times comes long before they gain recognition, titles or positions. They cannot fathom living any other way, and this habit is what brings about greatness in their leadership. Rather than leading themselves to force a result, they lead themselves out of a deep conviction that being great in every situation is its own reward, and this conviction spreads throughout their organization.

2. Great leaders are brutally honest with themselves.

The key word here is “brutal.” Not brutal as in self-loathing, but brutal as in gut-level candor. They refuse to run away from honest evaluation. In fact, they do the exact opposite—they run hard after feedback. Because they know and embrace their brutal truth, both flaws and flowers, they experience freedom to pursue their best selves and best work. 

3. Great leaders take failure personally… sort of.

You’ve probably heard failure is an unavoidable part of the learning process. Therefore, we need to accept it and not take failure so personally. With that said, one habit that separates great leaders from average leaders is great leaders DO take failure personally. Yes, they realize failure is part of their learning process, but they still hate it, and because they hate failing so much, they recognize their failures more quickly. And the lessons great leaders learn from failure get seared deeply into their souls. They learn quickly and then leave failure in the rearview mirror. While they never let failure define them, they are better than most at letting it redefine them.

Related: Why Failure Is Good for Success

4. Great leaders always build up and never tear down.

OK, now we’re in la-la land. This is impossible for leaders, right? They are the ones who get stuck with the dirty work of firing people, critiquing less-than-stellar performances and dealing with conflict. How can leaders always build up if they sometimes have to get down in the mud? Simple. They build others up by giving the greatest gift a leader can give: the gift of gracious honesty. 

For instance, if a team member isn’t performing because he is not a good fit for the job or organization, what’s the best way a leader can empower this person? By being honest about the situation. The key, however, is to be graciously honest, not ruthlessly honest. Gracious honesty means a leader avoids thinking more highly of himself than he ought to think, while at the same time speaks candidly with the team member about the situation and helps the team member strategize his next best steps. Although gracious honesty isn’t always received well, this doesn’t tarnish the value of the gift. It’s still the greatest gift a leader can give because it allows the leader to gently speak truth into the life of the individual while simultaneously empowering that person to look for the best solutions.

5. Great leaders own their responses at all times.

I first heard E+R=O during a presentation given by Jack Canfield over a decade ago. However, I learned the principle years earlier. As a middle schooler, I wore an “at-risk” label. I was falling way short in life because I believed E=O. I believed the events in my life determined my outcome. Since some of the events in my life hadn’t been positive, the outcomes for me didn’t look too great. Yet when a teacher caught me making a major mistake, something to this day I’m still ashamed of having done, he used that opportunity to teach me that my outcomes are not determined by events, but rather by my response to those events. (You might want to reread the previous sentence and let the principle really sink in.) Even as a young teenager, I understood if I wanted to be successful, I had to stop allowing external conditions to control me. If I wanted to be successful, I had to own my response

In the same way, when leaders lead via E+R=O, they are empowered to take any event, good or bad, and shape it into a positive outcome by controlling their response. They can even turn their greatest adversities into their greatest advantages. 

Are you a leader? Do you want to move from average impact to great impact? Start with your habits. Develop solid personal habits and the rest of the ingredients for leadership greatness will have the right mixing bowl for a richer flavor.


  • Which of the five habits would add the most to your leadership? What steps can you take to make it a habit in your life?
  • What overlooked habit would you add to this list?

Related: John C. Maxwell: The Daily Routine of Successful Leaders

Kent Julian was an at-risk kid with SAT scores so low he had to take Development Studies just to get into college—on probation. From those humble beginnings, he went on to lead a national youth organization that helped teenagers who were just like him. After 20 years in the nonprofit world, he did something crazy… He launched Live It Foward, which has become a successful lifestyle business. Now he speaks, writes and consults leaders all over the world. You can find his work cool places like Entrepreneur.com, SUCCESS.com and more. His goal is to help you maximize success in your personal life, relationships and work so you can “live it forward” into your dream life and calling.