21 leadership habits to cultivate in 2021

I love a good New Year’s resolution; I make them all the time. The trouble is that they often don’t work. We start off with great intentions but, for most of us, by mid-February (if even that long!), we’re tanking.

Research shows us that the trick is to focus on positive habits which help you reach your goals. Great intentions are great. But habits work because a little thing done often – until it becomes automatic and your brain doesn’t have to decide whether to do it or not – is the way to go.

So, for the first Leader’s Digest blog in 2021, I’m going to give you some handy leadership habits to cultivate. These leadership habits go a long way towards making you a better leader – and who’s not for that? Not only is becoming the leader you aspire to be a noble pursuit and one that you can be pretty proud of, but your team and boss will undoubtedly thank you too.

So here are the leadership habits you should focus on in 2021:

  1. Build trust. Regardless of where you are on your leadership journey, this should always be your first priority. Without trust, you’re in for a bumpy ride. See here and here for some tangible tips on how to build trust with your team.
  2. Cultivate curiosity. “Curiosity killed the cat” has to be one of the dumbest sayings I have ever heard. Learning to love the question is one of the most crucial skills leaders should cultivate. Curiosity expands our minds. It cultivates creativity. Curiosity increases knowledge and wisdom. It is the opposite of judgement. See this Harvard Business Review article for why curiosity is important in leadership and five ways to boost your curiosity.
  3. Connect your team to your organisation’s purpose and strategy. If your purpose and strategy seem a bit wishy-washy or full of corporate speak, talk about them with your manager until they’re more concrete and you can really connect with them. Then (and here’s the important part), make them meaningful for your team. What does the purpose and strategy mean for what you’re all doing together in 2021? How does what they do take the organisation closer to that vision? Why should it matter to them? What’s ‘in it for them’ if they focus their work on moving closer to that picture of success? What are the first steps you can take as a team to help the organisation achieve its strategy and purpose?
  4. Ditch needing to have all the answers. Forget the superhero archetype of leadership. Especially in these uncertain and volatile times, skilled leadership is all about harnessing the power of your team. I love it when a leader says, “I’m not sure what the answer is. But what I do know is that together we can work this out – what ideas do you have?” This leads us to point 5…
  5. Cultivate and support diversity. Diversity is a pretty hot topic right now within leadership – and for good reason. Diversity in all forms – whether gender, culture, thinking approaches, or age – creates better outcomes. Apart from the social justice argument, those organisations with diversity at the top table perform better financially than those who don’t. Read this article if you’re under a rock and still don’t get that diversity makes good (business) sense. See here for how you can do diversity well.
  6. Be purposeful about building connection. Connection between you and your team members – and within your team – is critical. It’s even more critical when you’re working with remote teams. In my book, Beyond Burnout (releasing 9 Feb), I outline how isolation at work is one of the major causes of burnout. In the ‘Socialise’ chapter, Beyond Burnout provides loads of ways leaders and organisations can address this. However, one simple approach you can take to build meaningful connections at work is to ensure you’re regularly having “how are we going?” conversations with your team, as well as “what are we doing?” conversations.
  7. Plan. Ok, ok, I get it. In our current COVID-fuelled environment, a lot of planning has gone by the wayside. The rate of uncertainty and volatility facing organisations is pretty full-on right now. However, research shows that a little bit of planning provides a road map for you and your team regardless of external forces. It helps to define what you’re aiming for and informs your intended way forward, so is worth doing regardless of the environment. Then, if circumstances change, you can pivot or course-correct. Which leads me to my next habit…
  8. Develop flexibility and nimbleness in yourself and in those you lead. One easy way to do this is to build time for review and reflection into your operating rhythms – both together and individually – on a regular basis. What are we doing that’s working? What did we think last month that may be different now? What do we need to keep doing or change to successfully meet what’s facing us over the next month/six months?
  9. Get better at listening. This should be a no-brainer. And although most leaders know that listening is a superpower for leadership effectiveness, most of us aren’t that flash at it. You can always up your listening game. See here for tips on how to get better at active listening.
  10. Hold your assumptions lightly. We like certainty; the world seems safer when things are black or white, or when we can quickly come to a conclusion or double-down on our point of view. But when it comes to leading your team, watch for the fundamental attribution error. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions too quickly, especially when it comes to non-performance or when problems occur. Is that person’s non-performance because they are lazy or disorganised? Or is it that they don’t have the necessary resources or you weren’t clear enough in giving them instructions? There can be many reasons for things not going to plan. And sometimes your first conclusion isn’t the right one. Seek to understand the problem properly before you jump into ‘solution mode’.
  11. Shine a light on what you want to see grow. Never hold back on giving your team specific, positive feedback on what they’re doing well (including outlining what impact that positive thing they did had on you, the team, your customers, or even how it reflects on themselves). Experts reckon that a ratio of 3:1 is about right for positive vs negative (or ‘balancing’) feedback.
  12. Get better at giving negative (or balancing) feedback. Your team really want to hear honest feedback, provided you do it right. Watch this short video here for some great tips by cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renninger on how to give balancing feedback well.
  13. Lead yourself before turning your attention to leading others. You can’t lead other people effectively without first leading yourself. This is why I purposefully have this as the first module in my blended leadership programme for emerging leaders, The Leader’s Map. But how do you do this? Increase your self-awareness and improve your emotional intelligence. Tasha Eurich’s book Insight and Daniel Goleman’s work are two great resources for a start.
  14. Create psychological safety within the team you lead. This builds on my first tip – building trust. Psychological safety is the shared belief that it's safe to take interpersonal risks as a group. These risks include speaking up when there's a problem with the team dynamics and sharing creative ideas, for starters. Don’t be shy in sharing your own mistakes in an accepting way. And if other people make mistakes, don’t go on a witch hunt. Use it as an opportunity to reflect on what you all learnt and what you can do differently next time.
  15. Apologise when you make a mistake or stuff up. A genuine apology is not only a cornerstone of great leadership, it’s also part of being a good human. Avoid the ‘no apology’ apology, which is when the apology is delivered with no remorse. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is a perfect example of what to avoid. This HBR article outlines four ineffective apologies to avoid.
  16. Strengthen your empathy and compassion muscles. Compassion and empathy are subsets of love. Love, or whatever term you want to apply to that phenomenon, is present in every great leader I have come across. Read this and this on why the L word should be central to your leadership. Love may not seem like it has a place at work, but let’s face it; the world could do with bucket-loads more love right now. For more wisdom on heart-centred leadership, follow Mark Crowley.
  17. Ask better (and more questions). A powerful, open, curious question is often far more effective in improving insight, self-awareness and creative problem-solving than a statement of your opinion. This article has some great ones. And here are some further tips on questions I wrote for The Leader’s Digest too.
  18. Make mental wellbeing a priority. Most organisations are waking up to the fact that it’s critical (and good for business) to create organisations where people, as well as profits, thrive. Mental wellbeing should be on the strategic agenda for all organisations. For a start, you could buy my book Beyond Burnout :). Although the four strategies I outline in the book are targeted towards spotting, stopping and stamping out burnout, many of these strategies can also be applied to broader mental wellbeing.
  19. Do more deep work and less ‘doom scrolling’, email sifting and multitasking. One of the best books I have read on the science of productivity and effectiveness is Deep Work by Cal Newport. He argues that the best way to get more meaningful work done is by working deeply – in a state of high concentration without distractions on a single task. As Newport so simply puts it, “Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.”
  20. Create more space in your diary for reflection. Action is useful. But so, too, is reflection. See this post and this post on the power of space and reflection in leadership. The metaphorical and literal pause in your day, week or year is ‘muis importante’ if you want to be an effective leader. Take 2020 for instance. We might want to put it behind us and never think of it again. But if we can make meaning of last year and ask ourselves “what have I learnt?” that will help us meet 2021 a little more wisely.
  21. ______________________I have left number 21 blank purposefully, and invite you to add your own leadership habit here…

Comment below on what leadership habit you are primarily working to cultivate this year so we can all get further inspiration. Or write down the one that, if you were to get better at in 2021, would most help you to become the leader you want to be. I look forward to seeing your thoughts.


January 21, 2021 AT 3:28PM

Love your Posts Suzi and I always look forward to the next!

Best wishes for 2021


Leanne Greep
January 21, 2021 AT 11:12PM

Embrace rejection or criticism and see it as opportunity. Trying something new or putting an idea out there is brave and embrace this risk and take more risk. Embrace different view points without taking it personally. Develop positively following the rejection or criticism.

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