As part of my research for The Science of Story and the development ProHabits - a research and personal development tool focused on habits that can transform the workplace - I've now interviewed hundreds of business leaders and done extensive research into the purpose, values and habits that are key to successful organizations. But what makes an effective leader?

I believe that what makes leaders effective are the habits and mindsets they bring to the workplace every day. There are hundreds of habits that leaders need to develop, but we're finding in our ProHabits research that there are a few that can make a big impact.

Here are four of them.


The definition of mindfulness is, "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique." In workplace practice it looks like taking a few minutes every day to think about everything on your plate, long term and short, and focusing on the ones that are most important.

Mindfulness is important for leaders - or anyone that wants to focus on what matters most - in that it takes you out of the mindset of putting out fires, It helps you see the forest instead of just trees and allows you to think more strategically. It helps you ask the right questions. What are the relationships or areas of your business that require your attention? What in your business or personal life needs your focus? Mindfulness can help you clarify these.

ProHabits' research has found that ProFocus (our term for mindfulness) is the most popular track among our users, indicating that this is a challenging area for many leaders and workers in the organizations we're studying. The payoff for gains in this area can be profound. The Institute for Mindful Leadership, in a multi-year study of a Fortune 200 company, found that leading mindfully led to a 40% improvement in productivity and 34% improvements in ability to prioritize and perform under pressure in the leaders that tried it.

Visualize to Become a Visionary

Visionaries inspire trust and motivate others by helping them envision a shared future where everyone is working on the same team toward the same goal. How do they do this? Through visualization: developing a complete mental picture of problems and their optimal solutions, and communicating that vision effectively to others so that they can see it too.

"You really have to go beyond an organizational chart and bring people together around a common vision and purpose, and learn to trust each other and move in the same direction," said Neal Simon, CEO of Bronfman Rothschild, an independent wealth management and retirement advisory says, "My role as CEO is to express a vision of where we want to go, clarify people's responsibilities in that vision, and maintaining a company culture where people think every day about how we can get better."

Visualization has been popular with sports psychologists, and performance coaches for years as athletes, actors and musicians - or anyone that needs to perform at a high level - develop focus and overcome their limitations.

Now, visualization is making inroads in the business world. A recent survey by TDBank found that nearly two-thirds of business owners who used visualization believed that it helped them meet the goals they envisioned. So how does it work?

It begins with creating a mental image of a problem and gathering information to make sure you aren't relying on bad assumptions about it. Next, visualize the outcome you want to achieve. You should hold that vision in all its aspects: what does success look like, who is involved, and how does it make you or others feel?

Write down this vision - you could even create a vision board - and begin communicating your vision to others. Use it to inform your decision making and the way you approach organizational challenges. The outcome you envision is what will engage and inspire yourself and others - whether they are employees, peers or other stakeholders - to overcome what holds you back.

"For my company, we started with the vision of being exceptional at service and defining what that means and what it looks like," says Simon. "Most cultures in wealth management are built around sales and making commissions. But, we focused on service, and then sought to hire people who like serving others and want to be exceptional at it. Then, we do other things that promote service in other ways -- such as serving the communities in which we live and work."

Take a Tech Timeout

This is also related to mindfulness, but one of the biggest challenges for leaders is responding to the instant messages, SMS notifications, emails, Slack conversations and other tech-enabled communications that bombard them throughout the day. It is entirely possible to spend your day responding and reacting to these and not actually move forward on the important issues that you identify during your mindfulness time.

Studies show that CEOs and executives spend nearly a full day out of each week managing their communications. Yet, time spent on these activities typically doesn't deliver the most value to the business. That's why for many leaders, taking a timeout from technology or limiting the use of it just to certain times, can be a helpful practice to ensure that you actually have time to do the activities you identify as being most important.

Manage the Minutes

The fourth habit that can transform a leader's effectiveness is being disciplined with their time. Meetings, sales calls, responding to emails and even phone calls are all inevitable facts of life, but when we allow them to take more time than they should, we hurt our ability to lead effectively.

To prevent this issue, leaders should develop the habit of managing their minutes by asking these questions:

Am I the right person to handle this? If not - send the call, meeting request or other inquiry to the right person. Trusting others to do their jobs gives you more time to do yours.

Can I delegate it? Effective delegation is how we prepare tomorrow's leaders. If the answer is yes, you should always delegate so that more junior team members can learn and grow.

How long should this take? Give yourself a time limit for meetings, phone calls and other interruptions. Schedule meetings for the minimum amount of time possible, and if your attendance isn't necessary for the duration, jump off as soon as you're able. Never spend an hour on a phone call when you're only needed for 30 minutes. Never spend 30 minutes when 28 will do. The minutes you save can give you hours more time each week.

Being a business leader means navigating in an increasingly complex environment, motivating others and managing our time effectively to ensure that the critical challenges of our organizations get the attention they deserve. By implementing these four habits, leaders can think more clearly, inspire others more effectively and get more done in less time.