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21 Things All Great Leaders Do

Ever asked yourself: What do the great leaders do that other leaders (average and, well, poor) don’t?

Greatness in leadership is in part born, but it’s also learned.

Just because you have the instincts for leadership doesn’t make you a great leader. Great leadership is also about cultivating the right habits and disciplines.

Which is good news for all of us, because that means we can grow and become better.

Age doesn’t make you better as a leader. It just makes you more of who you really are.

Your habits, disciplines and skill sets make you better.

So how do you get better? These 21 practices will do it.

great leaders

I’ve written on qualities of leadership before, but I thought I’d expand, revise and summarize my thinking into one post.

Here are 21 things I’ve seen all the best leaders do.

Great leaders:

1. Make the mission more important than themselves

The sure sign of a mediocre or poor leader is that their leadership is about them.

And it’s not always ego that drives this. Self-centred leadership can be driven as much by insecurity as it can be by pride.

The reason people want to throw their whole heart into a mission is because the mission is about a cause bigger than everyone, including the leader.

2. Work on their character even harder than their skill set

I used to think being a great leader was about your skill set.

But character sinks the ships of otherwise highly skilled leaders. Ethical breaches, moral lapses and character flaws take highly skilled leaders out of play regularly.

Great leaders know that character—not competency—determines your capacity as a leader. So they work hard on their heart, their lives, their morality.

3. Refuse to make excuses

Ever notice that the best leaders never make excuses?

In fact, the leaders who make the most progress make the fewest excuses. And the leaders who make the most excuses make the least progress.

This is one of my pet leadership themes: You can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

So stop making excuses. You’ll start making progress.

4. Bring clarity

Great leaders stick with a problem or idea long enough and engage it deeply enough to clear away the fog and reduce the concept to its simplest forms so anyone can understand it.

This doesn’t mean they dumb it down. Rather, it means they make the concept accessible. And because it becomes accessible, more people are helped, and more people follow.

If you can’t say it clearly in 30 seconds, you probably don’t understand the problem clearly enough to proceed.

5. Think abundance, not scarcity

A scarcity mindset will kill your organization or church over the long haul.

Yes there are seasons for restraint. Yes, every organization needs a bean counter. And yes, dreamers can be a problem.

But if you think small you will stay small. If you think it’s not possible, it won’t be.

6. See the opportunity, not the obstacle

Some people only see obstacles. The best leaders see opportunities.

When everyone else sees the problem, great leaders work at the problem until they find the opportunity.

7. Show up on time

Great leaders tend to show up on time.

If they’re late, they never make excuses. They take responsibility.

Great leaders take it a step further. They not only show up on time, they show up prepared.

Showing up on time and prepared can put you ahead of most other leaders.

8. Deliver on time…or ahead of time

The world is filed with people who promised and never delivered.

Great leaders will under-promise and over-deliver.

One of the best ways to do that is to hit deadlines, and even beat them. That gives time for feedback and correction and surprises the life out of whoever was counting on you.

9. Schedule their priorities

Great leaders set their own agendas. They know where they bring the most value, and schedule time for it.

Preachers do it by devoting one, two or three days a week to their messages, no matter what.

All leaders devote meaningful time to working on their business, not just in it.

Their most important tasks get their best energy and time, not their leftovers.

If you want to know how to schedule your priorities into your calendar, I wrote about it here.

10. Develop their strengths

Most of us want to fix our weaknesses.

The best leaders instead decide to recruit around their weaknesses and spend almost all of their times doing what they’re best at.

You’re probably only truly excellent at a few things.

Spend most of your time doing them.

11. Invest in themselves

You can see self-development as an expense.

The great leaders see a wise use of seminars, coaches, networks, conferences and resources as an investment rather than an expense.

How do you know it’s an investment?

Easy. It produces a return.

Look for those things that will produce a return.

12. Practice self-care

The best leaders take time off. They don’t work 24/7.

They realize they have limits and they respect them.

As I outlined here, almost every leader will either practice self-care, or will revert to self-medication.

Don’t believe it? Ever notice you eat worse when you’re under stress? That you swap out exercise when your schedule fills up in exchange for more caffeine?

If you answered yes, you’re self-medicating, and it takes down a huge slice of business leaders and church leaders.

13. Prepare to be mis-understood

Being misunderstood comes with the territory of leadership.

Sometimes you have to do what people need, not what people want.

And often, people won’t understand why in the moment.

As a result, you’ll be misunderstood.

If you’re leadership is more about the mission than it is about you, you’re okay with that.

14. Develop a trusted inner-circle

The best leaders never lead alone.

They don’t trust themselves enough to only seek their own opinion.

So they develop a trusted inner circle. I wrote about how to develop one here. The bottom line is to get some people wiser than you around you.

If you’re the smartest person in the room, get some new people in the room.

15. Take the high road

It’s easy to get pulled down into mud…arguing, jostling and getting caught up in cheap accusations that lead nowhere good.

Great leaders never do.

Take the high road.

You know what that is.

Be kind. Don’t fight back. Prepare to be misunderstood. Forgive. Show grace.

The high road isn’t the easy road, but it’s the best road.

You simply never regret taking it.

16. Push through their fears


Fear undermines so much in leadership. In this post, I outlined 5 ways to tell if fear is undermining your leadership.

So are great leaders fearless?

Not at all. It’s not that great leaders have no fears. They just push through them.

17. Take full responsibility

Weak leaders blame.

The best leaders take full responsibility—even when it’s not their fault.

That can be incredibly challenging to do, but great leaders have discovered that taking responsibility doesn’t cause people to blame you; it causes people to trust you.

It also makes causes whoever was in part responsible for the problem to want to rise to the occasion to make it right.

18. Leave people better than they found them

All leaders leave a trail.

Poor leaders will sometimes leave a trail of bodies or a trail of disappointment.

But the great leaders leave a legacy, because they leave people better than they were when they found them.

Great leaders help people become better people. The people they work with are tremendously grateful for that.

19. Call people by name

I’ve met a few fairly famous people over the last few years.

One thing that has surprised me is how they were intent on both learning my name and calling me by it.

I can only imagine how many tens of thousands of people they’ve met in their lives, but when I was with them, it was like I was the only one.

Remember and say people’s names. They’ll never forget that you did.

20. Help people who can’t help them

Selfish leaders are always building networks of people who can help them get ahead.

Truly great leaders alway make time for people who can provide no direct help for them.

They take the time to talk to an intern, to hear the custodian’s stories, to come alongside the middle manager who’s frustrated.

Can you do that for everybody?

Of course not.

But just because you can’t do something for everybody doesn’t mean you can’t do it for somebody.

21. Have private relationships that reflect their public leadership

Truly great leaders don’t have a disconnect between who they are at work and who they are in life.

Too many leaders seem great at work but are disasters at home. That’s not great leadership.

Great leaders throw same passion, skill and heart into their home life (and their faith life) as they throw into their work life.

Don’t use all your best energy at work. Save some of the very best for home.

What Do You See?

The great news, of course, is that each thing on this list is a skill or practice you and I can adopt. We can get better.

I also feel like this could be a longer list.

I’d love to know what you’ve seen truly great leaders do.

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • Great leaders also know when to quit. An over inflated sense of the opportunity and sunny optimism (sometimes masked as “faith”) can hurt those that serve the vision if the leader should have quit and moved on but refuses to see that something is not working or is not truly realistic for his team. When you let go of something that is not working or that is draining your team, you may take hold of opportunities that really help to focus and propel the mission.

  • Great list! I would add that great leaders always have someone in their life that can tell them no and they will listen. It is a safeguard for us… it keeps us from making dumb decisions.