Daily Habits of Successful Leaders: Examples and Lessons

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The most successful people in the business have 5 things in common:

  • They have laser focus;
  • They are excellent short and long term organizers;
  • They learn from their mistakes;
  • They adapt easily;
  • They take calculated risks.

Also, they read a lot. But that is a story for another time.

We have taken a look at daily habits leaders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, and analyzed some of their characteristics in order to find out the secrets behind their success.

Maintain focus - like Steve Jobs

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. - Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs used to spend his mornings in meetings with his product and management teams. Later in the day, he moved to Apple’s design lab and collaborated with companies top designer Jony Ive. Evenings, however, were reserved for family and personal matters, as Jobs used to spend them with his wife and kids.

Steve Jobs was a prime example of being optimized. He had a knack for prioritizing. According to Walter Isaacson, it was Job’s focused vision that made Apple what it is today.

In 1997, when Jobs returned to Apple, Apple was producing a a lot of products (Macintosh computers, parts, and peripherals). After a few hectic weeks of product review sessions, Jobs made a sudden decision to stop the entire process and make a revolutionary U-turn: he grabbed a marker and drew a two-by-two grid. Above the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro,” while the rows were labeled words “Desktop” and “Portable.” The grid might have looked something like this:

Steve Jobs's product matrix
DesktopiMacPower Mac G3
PortableiBookPowerBook G3

At that moment he told his team members to focus on four great products (one for each quadrant) and cancel the others. Even though many had disapproved of his decision, it turned out that by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers saved the company.

Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products. - Steve Jobs

At the same time, Jobs began taking his team of a 100 carefully selected people on a retreat once a year. On the last day, he gathered them in a large conference room, placed himself in front of the whiteboard, and asked: “What are the ten things we should be doing next?”. However, Jobs would write down each and every one, and then cross off ones he perceived dumb. After a long debate, the group would come up with a list of ten suggestions. Then, Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

His focus has led Jobs to be blatantly rude and brutal at times.

His people would reach out to him with their legal, personal, or professional problems, asking for help or advice. If he didn’t want to deal with it because he had other things on his mind, he would block them out completely. He wouldn’t answer email or give you a response - only a blank stare. Every day Jobs would choose four or five things to focus on while neglecting everything else in the process.

Learn from mistakes - Bill Gates

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they cannot lose. It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. - Bill Gates

The first thing you need to know about Bill Gates is that he likes his sleep - seven hours a night, at least. He cannot give speeches or do any creative work if he doesn’t get a good night’s sleep. However, he starts each day the same: an hour on a treadmill while watching educational DVDs.

In the early 1970s, Bill Gates and Paul Allen started a company called Traf-O-Data, which read and analyzed data from roadway counters and created reports for traffic engineers. Traf-O-Data was the first mistake Bill Gates made and learned from. According to Paul Allen, the idea that fueled the company was good, but the business model failed as there was no demand. Traf-O-Data ended up with a total net loss of $3,500. Despite everything, it turned out that this experience was a great lesson for both founders as it played a crucial role in the formation and success of Microsoft.

As the company grew over the years, some mistakes were bound to happen. However, Gates’ creativity, teamwork, and sufficient monetary stability allowed Microsoft to thrive and try new things which contributed greatly to company’s success.

Our products were successful enough that even when we did make a mistake — when we hired a wrong person or organized things the wrong way — we were frank enough to ourselves to say, ‘This isn’t working.’ And yet, my conservative balance sheet approach meant that for all the mistakes we made, we had a chance to learn from them and do different things.

Additionally, Gates is a big fan of feedback, or to be more precise - angry customer feedback, as he considers unhappy customers to be the greatest source of learning. He claims that company’s greatest source of growth can come from the people that will tell you what you need to hear and not just what you want to hear. In his case, Gates created a feedback loop where he gets world-class experts to tell him what he (or his company) is doing wrong. Every mistake is a lesson in disguise.

Stay organized - like Elon Musk

I do love email. Wherever possible, I try to communicate asynchronously. I’m really good at email. - Elon Musk

Elon Musk kicks off his day bright and early, rising at about 7 a.m, after six hours of sleep. He usually skips breakfast but he never skips morning shower as he considers it the best ‘thinking time’. Only then the actual work can start.

Musk spends Mondays and Fridays at SpaceX in Los Angeles, while the other three days he spends at Tesla. His entire day is broken down into a series of 5-minute slots. To save time, he insists on having lunch during mid-day meetings. Also, he declines most phone calls and relies heavily on email. However, Musk often changes and uses an obscure email address to prevent inbox spamming.

He has been known to work 85 to 100 hours a week, dividing working hours equally between SpaceX and Tesla. His reasoning is that working twice as hard as the usual 40-hour worker will give you twice the knowledge and twice the progress. However, Musk admits that being a business owner is not for everyone and that it requires a lot of sacrifice when it comes to work/life balance.

Another symptom of Musk’s high organizational capability is his tendency to remove inefficiencies. Basically, he strips everything that doesn’t help him or his companies move forward. Such was the case with Tesla electric car.

When Elon Musk decided to make world’s first “awesome” electric car, he had no experience in the automotive industry. So, as a complete beginner, Musk started crowdsourcing feedback from friends and coworkers about electric cars. It turned out that problem was public perception - these cars were regarded as powerless and unreliable. So, Tesla had to be everything electric cars weren’t: fast, sleek, and charged. By looking at what didn’t work in electric cars, Musk removed the inefficiencies he witnessed in traditional automotive companies. The result was Model S, which was a hugely successful electric car.

To top things off, he decided to invest into the Tesla’s research and development rather than marketing, taking upon himself to become the spokesperson for the brand. Musk used his personal story as a launch pad for introducing Tesla while providing his team with additional resources to develop a superior product.

Constantly evolve and adapt - like Jeff Bezos

What’s dangerous is not to evolve. - Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos starts his day between 7 and 8 am, and always spends at least 8 hours a night sleeping. Before heading to the office, he exercises on his treadmill, while reading the morning newspapers. While at work, Bezos tries to avoid being in the office all day and tends to do a lot of his business remotely. During his free time, he reads, a lot.

In the past, however, he had to work long and hard to achieve his current success. Bezos left Wall Street and founded Amazon.com because he relied on something he calls regret minimization framework:

The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called — which only a nerd would call — a “regret minimization framework.” So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.” I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision.

Over the years Amazon became powerful company, with a net sales revenue of 136 billion dollars in 2016. Its culture is based on firm Leadership principles, which you can apply practically.

Jeff Bezos proved his ability to adapt to any given situation once again in 2015, when New York Times published a controversial story about organizational culture in Amazon, which was followed by Amazon employee manifesto. However, Bezos issued a swift response to the speculation announcing a new time of ‘empathy’ at Amazon.

Two years later, out of the everlasting need to adapt and innovate, Bezos introduced his Day 1 philosophy to Amazon shareholders. He compares “Day 1” companies — companies that are just discovering their potential — with “Day 2” companies. He defined “Day 2” as stasis, followed by irrelevance, decline, and death of the company.

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight. A customer-obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen. In Day 2, you stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right.The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them, and you have a tailwind.

You can read the entire shareholder letter here.

Take risks - like Mark Zuckerberg

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In the world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. - Mark Zuckerberg

The first thing Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, does in the morning is check email, messages, and social networks. Afterwards, he spends about an hour working out. When he gets ready for work, Mark spends no time on trivial decisions, like what to wear. He always wears the same thing: jeans, a pair of sneakers and a gray t-shirt. This approach helps him focus on more important things, and reduces the number of decisions he has to make throughout the day. Zuckerberg usually works for 50-60 hours a week, and he tries to use that time proactively rather than reactively. The rest of his day is spent in reading.

However, Mark did not become a leader just by playing it safe: he took risks when needed, and it paid off.

The first time he took a big risk was at the time he was raising money for Facebook. Even though investors were lining up to hear Zuckerberg’s proposals, he decided to shut them out: he refused phone calls, ignored messages, and canceled meetings to drive up demand. Eventually, 12 investors were ready to fund his site, no questions asked. The rest is history.

Second risk Zuckerberg took was making the freshly-launched Facebook available exclusively to students at Ivy league schools in 2004. That made students at other colleges from all over the country want to become part of this exclusive club. This way, he made sure that supply is never larger than the demand.

During his trip to Bogota, Columbia in 2015, Zuckerberg was asked about the exact moment he came up with the idea for Facebook. To everybody’s astonishment, his answer was:

I don’t think that’s how the world works. Ideas typically do not just come to you. It’s a lot of dots that you connect to make it so that you finally realize that you can potentially do something.

The third risk he took was not selling the company, despite numerous lucrative offers: before Zuckerberg took Facebook public in 2012, he had many opportunities to sell the company. He stuck to his guns and believed in what he was doing - now he is worth over 65 billion dollars.

To conclude, Zuckerberg’s risk taking attitude is perfectly summed up in his famous quote: “Done is better than perfect.” He has determined that finishing something is more important than perfecting it, stating that one can always go back and improve on an existing project. However, doing your best is what counts.

Many business are afraid to take a risk because they are so worried about making a mistake. Companies are set up so that people judge each other on failure. I am not going to get fired if we have a bad year. Or bad five years. I don’t have to worry about making things look good if they’re not. I can set up the company to create value. - Mark Zuckerberg.

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