3 habits that separate good leaders from great leaders

woman giving presentation
As a leader, reframe your approach to work if you find yourself becoming too complacent.
  • Chief people officer at HubSpot, Katie Burke, says great leaderships means improving how things are done.
  • When the opportunity to build on something arises, take it and make it better.
  • Being a good leader also means being vulnerable, asking for feedback, and reflecting on mistakes.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Regardless of industry or field, there's one thing that distinguishes great leaders from good ones: the mindset of making something better versus just getting it done.

Good leaders complete a task; great leaders improve upon it.

When running a company, it can be tempting to check the box on certain projects or initiatives. After all, time isn't a luxury most leaders have. But I'd argue that doing consistently great work often comes down to your mindset, not how many hours you have in a day. It's about pushing for excellence and approaching every task, project, or decision as an opportunity to make an impact for your customers, employees, or candidates.

Below are three ways I've seen great leaders leave something better than they found it that any leader can learn from.

Take ownership

As a leader, you set the tone for how ownership and autonomy show up in practice. If you regularly say, "That's not my job" or "Someone else should handle that issue," then you're sending a message to your team or organization that it's okay to pass the buck. Instead, consider acting like an owner.

As an example, if you wish your company had more onboarding support for new hires, consider creating a template or resource yourself instead of continuing to ask your HR team to add it to their list. (I promise you that they are as busy as they say they are, especially over the past year.) Or, another example, if you want to see your team publish more content externally, then publish some yourself first.

If you act like nothing is someone else's problem, you'll be amazed by the impact you can have on your organization and the example you'll set for your team to take ownership of their own work.

Don't be afraid to get creative

For my first project at HubSpot, I worked on a slide deck for our CEO, Brian Halligan. I did exactly what he asked me to do in the email and nothing more. When we met to review the deck, he asked me if I thought it was great. I admitted I didn't, and he agreed. My mistake was waiting for him to tell me to take it to the next level.

Lesson learned: Doing just what is asked of you with no innovation or creativity won't cost you your job, but it certainly won't get you recognized, either. When you have the opportunity to improve upon something with creativity, take it.

As an example, let's say you're leading a cross-collaborative effort. You could send 1,000 emails and data requests to get it over the line, making it a joyless process for everyone involved. Alternatively, you could identify a creative way to kick off the project to help everyone feel connected to its success, and find small ways to celebrate contributions along the way. The former approach will get you a checkmark, but the second will earn the trust of your team and stakeholders, and make the project a lot more fun for everyone.

Lead with vulnerability

Good leaders focus on what went well about a given project or launch, but the best leaders I know reflect on their mistakes and share those learnings openly with others. To me, knowing the difference between good and great starts with acknowledging your own imperfection and being willing to identify where you can improve for next time.

Soccer star Abby Wambach has shared how hard it was to get criticism from a former coach who cut her, but how owning the challenging feedback and using it to improve her game transformed her career. Similarly, be willing to share with people what's working alongside with what isn't; doing so creates the psychological safety people need to share their own ideas to improve your next effort and sets the tone that progress, not perfection, is the goal of any great leader.

Oftentimes, when I feel like I'm in a rut as a leader, it's because I know I'm not doing my best work. So, if you've been rushing more than usual, checking the boxes, or getting dangerously close to complacency, give yourself a chance to reframe your approach. The best leaders I know have less emphasis on checklists and more on continuous improvement. We all have the power to make an impact, and for me, it starts with never settling for "good enough."

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