7 exercises that set exceptional leaders apart from the rest

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I will never forget the first moment I truly knew that leadership mattered. I was 19 years old, working as a teller for a regional bank, and a group of executives came to visit our office. The top performing teller working next to me had been working hard for years trying to earn a promotion to be a banker. In advance, he was promised time with the authorities that day to share his story and earn their support. She had put in a lot of effort that day – she bought a suit to wear to work for that specific day, and got up extra early to do her hair and practice what she said.

When the officers left without saying a word to her, she broke down. She cried in the back break room, and right then I made a promise to myself that if I was ever in a senior leadership position, nothing like this would happen on my watch. I vowed to be better.

That day ended two decades ago and I still remember it as it was yesterday. Since then, I have spent more than 20 years observing, studying and leading at all levels, including in my previous role as Chief Operating Officer. I have created a framework for great leadership (I call it virtues) and I know these seven practices are essential to exceptional leadership.

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1. Have a Look

Great leaders always have a compelling view of the reality of the future which looks different from today. And not only do they have it, but they share it, communicate it and talk about it constantly. Vision is the purpose, that is the “why”. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why what we do matters. Great leaders eat, breathe and live this vision every day. They make sure that people know what it is and know how they personally contribute to the bigger picture. They make sure that people are as excited for it as they are. They always make decisions in line with the larger vision for the company or team, and there is a real congruence between the vision statement and what people do every day.

2. Involve Others

The best leaders know that leadership is not about them, it is about others. Truly excellent leaders involve more and more people in their teams, their peers, their associates, their customers, and almost everything they do. When you’re in leadership, you don’t “manage” things. You lead and inspire the people who manage things. Great leaders know this. They involve others in important decisions, meetings and events. They ensure that their direct reports receive continuous coaching and that people are involved in their own development and action plans. They are constantly seeking feedback and ideas.

3. Regular Diet

Exceptional leaders have consistent routines, especially around the activities and behaviors that matter most. They put down the most important daily, weekly or monthly actions that make a difference in a cadence. They put it on the calendar and don’t deviate from those plans. Coaching people in 1:1 settings and groups, sharing business updates, team building and creating space to learn new things are all examples of tasks that matter most. These activities should not only happen when there is a fire drill, a problem or an emergency – but on a frequent, regular basis. Great leaders not only make time for these activities, but they create structured, predictable schedules around these things and loop others around so that everyone knows what’s going on. Too many surprises don’t happen with great leaders.

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4. Talk a lot

Excellent leaders are often excellent communicators. However, one thing that excellent leaders do incredibly well is to create an environment where others can excel in communication as well. They work hard to establish safe, secure environments where people can communicate, ask questions, and share things they fear or panic. They are constantly asking questions to everyone around them and they listen well. Great leaders take the time to rewrite important conversations and follow up with people after meetings or events. They remember what people said and are specific in their response.

5. Understand how understanding works

Excellent leaders know how important learning and development is to team success. The business world is constantly evolving and changing, so if we, as people, are not upgrading ourselves, we are already lagging behind. Great leaders are constantly creating a learning environment so that people can acquire new skills, learn new things, and grow. Great leaders do not see training or teaching as the responsibility of human resources or the Department of Education and Development; They know follow-up is needed to truly understand and that their participation matters. They become involved in helping their teams train and teach, even if it is simply by asking what was learned in training and then ensuring that it is implemented and executed.

6. Stimulate Energy

Motivational leaders are constantly looking for reasons to stimulate the heart by recognizing and rewarding success. Great leaders don’t wait until a project is complete to celebrate. They are great about finding small victories to celebrate. Their goal is always progress – never perfection – so they are very good about accepting milestones and steps along the way before a project is completed or before the team hits the finish line. They don’t just admire the results. Instead, they also praise effort and behavior with ease. They talk about lead measures, not just lag measures.

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7. Showcase Swimming

Whatever they do, incredible leaders talk with them. They make way. They show the same behavior that they want to see in other people. They practice what they preach and they really live up to what they are telling others to live. His actions match his words. If they expect others to readily admit their mistakes and be vulnerable, they will do the same thing. They eagerly tell their worst war stories about their earlier days so that others can learn from them. They create an open, safe environment for others to do so. They are approachable, accessible and never act as if they are above anyone or anything. They swim laps with their teams.

I guarantee you that if you follow these seven practices, you will be an exceptional leader. Your people will worship you, respect you, be loyal to you and you will have lasting, successful results.