The 7+1 Habits of Highly Successful Leaders

I recently had a candidate I was interviewing to ask about my leadership style. I gave a short answer, but I was left thinking that I would have liked to continue talking about this for a much longer time. My “style”, if there is such a thing, is composed of several approaches and techniques that I have added through the years. Some of them come from direct experience and trial and error, but others come from reading books. I missed not having had the time to go into more details about some of my favorite leadership “tricks”. I also missed not having mentioned some of the books where I found out about them and recommending them to that candidate.

This post is what I missed saying in that conversation. I have structured some of what I consider to be the most important habits of a leader around recommended readings. Regardless of whether you trust or agree with my advice, I hope this will be at the very list an interesting reading list recommendation. I should also stress that while the focus of this post is on leadership strategies, I hope anyone can benefit from these, regardless of your current position. In fact, hopefully by reading this post I can encourage you to tap to that “leader in you”.

The 8 habits

So, let’s dive right into it: What are the 8 habits of a successful leader?

In the rest of this post, we will get into each of these habits and connect them to a book where they are explained in much more details.

1. Be a Multiplier

According to Liz Wiseman, the author of Multipliers, “Multipliers, are the leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go off over people’s heads; ideas flow and problems get solved.”

As a leader, you don’t want to be the smartest person in the room, nor to have the answer to every problem. What you do want is to grow everyone in your team so they maximize the impact and performance of the team as a whole. Being a multiplier involves attracting and cultivating talent. It also means creating a culture of debate, challenge, and ownership at all levels. But, most of all, it involves investing in people and believing in their potential to grow.

Being a multiplier is in my point of view perhaps the number one goal of any leader and manager.

2. Promote Extreme Ownership

In Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willing, and Leif Babin, two former officers of the Navi SEALs, explain why as a leader it is very important that you feel extreme ownership over your team’s results. If the team wins, you owe it to the team. If the team fails, it is your fault. This is a radical way of thinking about leadership, as the title of the book suggests, but it is the only way to gain ultimate respect as a leader and to get people to also feel similarly about their own work.

I have to say that despite coming from a military family I am not a fan of “military culture”, so I always feel a bit awkward about recommending a book about the Navy Seals. However, this book has a lot of universal lessons that anyone in any position of leadership should know about and possibly implement in their context. Being in an extreme position where the lives of people (including your own team) depend on you makes it more obvious how you should behave, and that adds clarity to the message. But, I truly believe any leader should learn how to check their ego out and give everything for the team.

This book also has very valuable lessons on prioritization, execution, clarity, and decision-making under uncertainty. Again, all of these are very valuable assets for a manager of any high performing team.

3. Practice Radical Candor

Radical Candor is perhaps the perfect complement to Multipliers. If you want to make people better and grow them, challenge them, and care about them, says Kim Scott. I love the simplicity of Kim’s two dimensional space of caring and challenging. In order to be a “kick-ass” boss, you need to combine those two dimensions. If you just challenge without caring, you enter the territory of Obnoxious Aggression (aka jackass), but if you care without challenge you end up on ruinous empathy. This is all illustrated in the simple two-dimensional graph below.

Radical candor is one of my all-time favorite management books, and I was fortunate to meet Kim and learn from her directly. An instant classic with lots of interesting examples from Kim’s and other managers personal experiences that also includes practical advice on aspects such as how to use one-on-ones’s or how to understand what motivates every individual.

4. Make an Alliance

I picked up a copy of The Alliance from the Netflix cafeteria years ago. When I was reading it at home, I realized it had a personal dedication from Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) to Reed Hastings (founder of Netflix). I sent Reed an email, but he said I should keep the book: He had left it on purpose for someone to read it after he had finished it. I do feel like I own a piece of Silicon Valley history with that personalized copy.

The Alliance focuses on the interesting question of how to address the tension between what the employee wants, and what the company needs. The answer is, of course, to form an explicit alliance. The individual will give their best, working hard and optimizing for what is best for the company. The company promises to give back not only compensation, but also growth and career opportunities.

To be honest, the book goes perhaps into too much detail of LinkedIn’s approach to implementing the Alliance through “Tours of Duty” (4 years in which the employee commits to a particular “project”) and “employee networks”. Both these ideas are somewhat interesting, but not worth a book. However, the overall idea of an alliance, and many of the practical tips on how to manage it are really useful and important for any manager.

5. Overcommunicate Clarity

The Advantage is another book that came to me through Netflix’ Reed Hastings since he recommended it to all managers at Netflix back then. The book is a great read on organizational culture. You can think of it as an updated book-sized version of Peter Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage does a great job in explaining why despite the lack of a unique formula to find the “right culture” for your company, finding that culture and making sure it fits your mission and your business context is maybe the most important thing you should do as a leader. And, while it is true that the specifics of the culture will depend on things like your mission, your product, and your business context, there is an important aspect of any successful business culture: clarity.

Lencioni describes his four disciplines model:

  1. Build a cohesive leadership team
  2. Create clarity
  3. Overcommunicate clarity
  4. Reinforce clarity

As you can see, most of the disciplines about creating and reinforcing clarity, which is a key requirement for any successful leader. Clarity leads not only to better alignment and execution, but also to pshycological safety since people in the organization understand the expectations and the norms, and can therefore feel safe to operate within them.

6. Measure what matters

As an engineer/scientist I am a fan of data-informed decisions. However, people and organizations are complex, so making decisions that are backed by things that you can measure is hard. In Measure What Matters, John Doerr describes the well-known approach to doing this based on OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

So, what is the OKR approach in a nutshell? Easy: you describe the goals for your company, teams, and individuals as the combination of objectives (what you are trying to accomplish), and associated key results (how you will measure whether you have accomplished those objectives). OKRs are ideally propagated up and down the company’s hierarchy all the way to the individual in a team. The key results at each level should become objectives a level down. The book also has many other useful recommendations on how to write key results in a way that they are really measurable and also in a way that they promote stretch goals.

You might decide that the OKR approach is not the right one for your team or company (in fact another of my recommendations below argues against them), however, understanding this method and going through the many interesting examples in this book is a must for any leader. Doerr describes how OKRs have been used at large companies such as Google or Intel, but also how they have been useful in small startups.

Besides describing the OKR approach, Measure What Matters also goes into aspects of leadership in the form of “superpowers”, all of which I think are very important:

  1. Focus
  2. Align and Connect
  3. Track for Accountability
  4. Stretch for Amazing

7. Create Purpose and Meaning

I first heard about Kofman’s approach to leadership directly from him in a talk. I will be honest to say that I wasn’t very impressed probably because it was a relatively short presentation, and he just brushed over a lot of things at a very high level. His constant references to LinkedIn did not help much in getting my attention either. However, I did decide to read The Meaning Revolution not long ago after it was recommended to me at work, and I did end up thinking it is a very good leadership book, totally worth a read, particularly because it offers a complementary view to most of the books I listed above.

The main thesis of the book is that in order to become a great leader, you need to transcend and motivate employees by offering them meaning and the opportunity to be part of something “bigger”. This really aligns with my personal approach, and my career choices have always led me to find companies with more and more “meaning”. I will say that the one thing I disagree with Kofman is his idea that you can offer transcendence and meaning regardless of what your company does (he convincingly uses the example of a large insurance company).

That being said, I really liked most of the other “side” lessons and pieces of advice in the book. Kofman has very useful advice on how to think about company culture, and how to push for “response-ability” while also encouraging collaboration. Despite of what you think about the main thesis of the book or how many holes you can poke at it, I strongly believe that this central part of the book has very good and useful advice for any leader or leader-to-be.

8. Treat People Like Adults

In Powerful, Patty McCord describes the most important aspects of the Netflix culture. As unique as it is, the Netflix culture has had a huge impact specially in the tech and startup world. And, of course, it has had a tremendous impact on me. I will always consider myself a Netflix alumni. Yes, I have written about how this is not a culture that you can copy (as none other is), but there are many aspects of the Netflix culture I love. Patty, who was Chief Talent Officer during my time at Netflix, was the main architect of that culture, and she has a lot of valuable lessons.

The book touches upon many different aspects of the Netflix culture, all of which can be summarized by the subtitle of “Freedom and Responsibility”, but also by the First Chapter’s subtitle: “Treat People Like Adults”. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but when you are reminded of how most tech companies treat their employees you realize it is not. McCord argues against perks, structured career ladders, and compensation reviews. She does propose a culture in which employees are valued for their impact, and their contribution to the company’s success. Interestingly, there are many aspects of this that relate to both “The Alliance” and Kofman’s “Meaning and Purpose”.

The book also talks a lot about communication aspects such as radical honesty and a culture of debate. Finally, it goes into practical aspects such as how to set up a compensation “policy”, and how to hire and fire. All of these are important aspects of leadership that I would recommend anyone in such a position to consider and at the very least have an informed opinion on.

A final recommendation

Many of you might have recognized that the title of this post honors one of the most well-known and respected business books ever written: The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey. I had heard about this book many times, but I was honestly put off by a title that seemed like a marketing gimmick, and the fact that it was usually described as a “self-help book”. Was I wrong. This book has extremely important and deep lessons useful not only for business, but for life in general (I guess that is why many people will call it “self-help”). The reason I finally decided to pick up the book is because I saw it in the recommendation list of someone I trust. Maybe you are reading this and wondering whether it’s worth it. I hope to convince you it is.

I won’t go into any details, but I think it is worth to list Covey’s 7 habits:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, then to Be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Note how many of these habits touch upon several of the themes of my 8 habits above such as ownership, communication, and goal setting or prioritization. Covey does add an important and missing dimension in the 7th habit “Sharpen the Saw”, where he describes how any personal (or organizational) growth needs to be interpreted as a continuous and incremental process. I am a fan of incremental improvement, and I am really happy we added the great value of “Incremental Excellence” to our values at Curai.

Whatever your current position and style or approach is, one thing I can tell you for sure: you are not perfect, and you can get better. This idea of continuous growth and improvement is one of the most awesome things of being a human being. Embrace and enjoy it!

Cofounder/CTO at Curai (AI for healthcare). Former Quora VP, Netflix Director. Software, Machine Learning, Data, Recsys... From Barcelona, in the Valley