The New Habits of Influential Leaders

Tuesday 04 April 2017
From donning your running shoes to fine-tuning your vocabulary, here’s the 10 things every superinfluential leader is doing

In the 1980s and 1990s, business was dominated by big corporations. The watering holes were august institutions such as the CBI and Institute of Directors, where portly leaders arrived in chauffeur-driven cars for extremely long lunches. Favours were dished out on the golf courses of the Home Counties.

Then came the new millennium, and ‘dot-com’ entrepreneurs started making their presence felt. Bright young things such as Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox brought rock-star glamour to the fusty corridors of influence. The co-founders of didn’t wear ties but they did make money, and that gained them entry to the ranks of the influential.

Scroll forward to 2017, and the traditional order has been well and truly routed. Old corporations have shriveled in the face of relentless digital assault.

Today, an alternative elite of modern-thinking managers dominates business. These leaders, The New Influential, shun ‘old school’ habits and mindsets. They operate to a new set of norms and, for them, business and management should dance to a new, disruptive tune.

What are the characteristics of today’s influential leaders then? What can you learn from them? And how do your daily habits stack up against those of the management elite?

1. Get Yourself Ultra-fit

Mark Zuckerberg (the icon of The New Influential) set himself the target of running a mile a day for a year, but found it so laughably easy that he moved up to doing triathlons.

To be in genuine contention for New Influential status, you should be in training for an Ironman or, even better, an extreme Japanese running challenge.

Seriously, the reason so many modern leaders buy into fitness regimes is that they instinctively believe in what the psychologist Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”. In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson debunks the idea of natural ability. He insists that, as long as they receive expert guidance, anyone can be pushed to attain superhuman levels of performance.

So it’s no surprise that the kind of physical and mental training that athletes do is ever more common among elite managers.

2. Talk the Talk

Business leaders used to bamboozle their minions with the latest management speak. In this less formal age, that won’t cut it.

To discover how today’s influential see themselves, I used a tool called Textalyser to analyse their LinkedIn profiles. Of the 20 or so people whose text I examined, most had at least 500 contacts. These are the sort of people who start, build and sell companies – before breakfast.

So how do influential people describe themselves? The most common words were: entrepreneur, co-founder, investor, adviser, change (as in ‘drive change’), technology, fintech, scaling (you don’t just start companies; you ‘scale’ them – grrr), collaborative, growth, innovative, London, board, capital, world... you get the picture.

So, if your LinkedIn profile describes you as “a successful and passionate entrepreneurial leader who scales fintech startups in London and globally, and who advises and invests in other startup entrepreneurs”, then you’re on your way to the inner circle.

3. Listen and Inspire

Say less and listen more. That’s the mantra of Michael Bungay Stanier, author of several books about productive working, and founder of the bizarrely named Box of Crayons, which teaches managers how to coach.

Such thinking chimes with reality. Look at the change in attitudes to mentoring, say, which was formerly seen as a refuge for wimps but is now the most respected route to self-improvement. We are reaching the end of overtly macho management.

Author Ryan Holiday says “ego is the enemy” of the modern leader, as it stops us from developing our talents and learning. Ego-driven managers tend to be risk-averse and intolerant of failure; truly inspirational leaders listen, coach and guide.

Finally, read the seminal article ‘20 things the most respected bosses do every day’ (shared again and again online). The first three habits that the author, Bill Murphy Jr, advocates are: “They share their vision”, “They develop expertise” and “They respect people’s time”.

Truly, we live in a more giving age.

4. Share Personal Stories

The ability to relate inspirational personal stories to workplace challenges is one of the hallmarks of the elite manager. This can be excruciatingly difficult at first, and many leaders will always want to keep their professional and private lives separate.

However, as Carmine Gallo has described in two recent CMI webinars, storytelling is the quality that marks out the best and most effective modern leaders, and this view is supported by many titans of leadership.

“It’s not enough to have facts on your side,” says Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. “You have to do storytelling.”

“Storytelling is everything,” says US businesswoman Barbara Corcoran. “Show me an MBA and your sales numbers – that’s fine. But tell me a great story and we’ll talk.”

5. Show Passion

In modern leadership, cynicism has gone the way of the closed-door office. Today’s influential leaders are passionate: passionate about work, passionate about changing their industry for the better, passionate about global economic empowerment…

Read their blogs (most have them) and you’ll discover that they’re passionate about their private life too. They’re particularly passionate about their children, though often the kids don’t appreciate this – “But, dad, I’ve already done six evenings of gymnastics/tennis/violin/maths training this week...”

6. Root Decisions in Evidence

Yes, passion must shine through, but the decisions of the elite are always informed by data and analytics. Evidence drives the modern leader, and the vast quantities of available data make fully evidence-based management ever more achievable.

In their book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, Brian Christian and Tim Griffi ths argue that humans are increasingly learning from computers (rather than the other way round) and are bringing algorithmic-style decision-making into their day-to-day lives.

As Professor Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, we are marching towards the fusion of human and machine learning.

7. Communicate

As well as being a storyteller, today’s top managers are relentless communicators. They share their vision daily, hour by hour, in the middle of the night, in tweets, on YouTube, in ‘town hall’ meetings…

As Bill Murphy Jr put it on “The most important thing a leader can do is provide his or her team with a goal that is worth their time.” Communicating this “effectively and often” is a constant obligation.

Whatever the situation, it’s handy to have a few inspirational aphorisms at your fingertips. For example: “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” Or “Start with the why”.

8. Be Informal

A friend who works for an international insurance broker told me of the shockwaves caused by the office dress code being relaxed to allow (deep breath) business casual clothing. Many of the old guard still can’t bring themselves to shed their suits.

In digital land, by contrast, formal dress is as rare as a printed business card. Handsomely paid data scientists, engineers and statisticians generally rock up in the standard uniform of T-shirt and chinos.

And that’s at the smarter end of the spectrum. That said, the top modern managers do seem always to be well groomed. Their punishing fitness regime ensures they glow with vigour and purpose.

9. Avoid Conventional Working Patterns

Deluged with information, we now live in the era of ‘continuous partial attention’. True influentials do not have the attention span for weekly catch-ups and hour-long brainstorming sessions so, like M&C Saatchi co-founder Bill Muirhead, they prefer high-intensity 10-minute slots.

Various unconventional meeting styles are being experimented with, and ‘meeting envy’ is becoming a thing of the past.

Increasingly, you’ll aspire to what Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, calls “deep work”, a peaceful state of mind in a highly distracted world, which can only be achieved through intense concentration.

Indeed, the behavioural psychologist Winifred Gallagher says elite leaders are marked out by their ability to give “rapt” attention to the most important tasks.

10. Think Big

Today’s influential leaders see their role as challenging the status quo and ‘We’ve always done it like that’ syndrome. Observing the extracurricular interests of the superinfluential, you can see how all orthodoxies are being questioned.

Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has wondered aloud whether government, in its existing form, is sustainable and whether pioneering thinkers should instead be granted extra-legal freedom to test new models (the ‘seasteading’ thesis). Closer to home, Sir Richard Branson is pushing the boundaries of travel with his space-tourism plans. And Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are battling it out over whose disease-ending plans are the most ambitious.

These kind of visions may be beyond the reach of mere mortal managers, but they hint at a wider truth: today’s employees want to be inspired by something beyond money and day-to-day responsibilities. That kind of uplifting leadership should be within the realms of possibility for every ambitious manager.

And One Last Thing…

Ditch the golf clubs and get into cycling. Golf is so 20th century. The transformation of cycling from the gentle pastime of Oxford dons to the lifestyle choice of the 2017 elite leader has, by contrast, been something to behold.

Cycling and running clubs (especially the phenomenal Parkruns) are the networking nerve centres of the new influential. As one super-influential contact of mine puts it on his LinkedIn profile: “When I get home, I ride my bike.”

Presumably that’s after he’s taken off his shoes and said hello to his family.