5 habits good leaders are cultivating now

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In these strange and stressful times, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of events, the disruption to routines, the negative effects on the economy and the psychological impact of uncertainty over the immediate and longer-term future.

At this low ebb, business leaders have an outsized role to play. Their behaviours, words and actions will reverberate for years to come - on their organisations, on their personal and business relationships and on their own state of mind. Our faculty members urge leaders to develop good habits now for future success. 


1. “Give gifts of unequal value”  – Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance

A finance textbook tells you that two assets of equal value will trade. But real life is not a finance textbook. A priceless habit is to give gifts of unequal value, that are worth much more to the recipient than it costs you. We’ve seen many companies step up and give such gifts in the crisis.  Supermarkets are giving dedicated store hours and priority delivery slots to the elderly and vulnerable.  Doing so sacrifices only a small amount of short-term profit but could save lives.

“If there's any silver lining to this devastating crisis, it’s that it may permanently inspire us all to think about what gifts of unequal value we can give to serve society”

Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance

Moreover, while it’s clear how supermarkets and healthcare companies can play their part, thinking creatively about what gifts you can give inspires leaders of seemingly unrelated businesses to help out. Chelsea Football Club is allowing NHS workers to stay at its hotel, which otherwise would be unused, to save them a long commute after a full day of fighting on the frontline. And the idea that gifts don’t need to cost much means that even small businesses can chip in.  Not every company has the $800 million that Google is giving in loans and free advertising.  But Barry’s, a boutique gym, is offering free online workouts, mental health first aid from qualified staff, to read stories to children via webcam (taking the load off working parents), and to telephone people who are isolated. 

And it extends beyond companies to individual citizens. Some buy groceries for elderly neighbours.  A friend has advanced purchased 100 coffees from his local coffee shop to provide them with liquidity. A sincere “thank you” can mean a lot to an overworked delivery driver or grocery store clerk.  If there's any silver lining to this devastating crisis, it’s that it may permanently inspire us all – CEOs and citizens – to think about what gifts of unequal value we can give to serve society.


2. “Embrace different perspectives”  Gillian Ku, Professor of Organisational Behaviour

In the current unprecedent times of COVID-19, the world has been turned upside down. Amid the fear and anxiety of a new and terrifying virus, work and personal routines have been completely disrupted. Organisations and families have had to readjust to self-isolating and social distancing while maintain some semblance of normality and productivity. Unfortunately, in such times, it is easy to misunderstand others’ actions and motivations; tempers can fly and conflict can ensue.

“Now, more than ever, having the skills to walk a mile in another person’s shoes is a habit worth harnessing”

Gillian Ku, Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Now, more than ever, having the skills to walk a mile in another person’s shoes is a habit worth harnessing. Seeing the world through a lens of diverse vantage points – particularly those different from your own – isn’t easy. It takes patience and practice. It means investing effort in understanding others’ world views, motivations, intentions and emotions. Research documents clear benefits of perspective-taking on a host of dimensions. These range from improving interpersonal relationships, including greater cooperation, coordination, reducing conflict, reducing stereotyping and prejudice to improving organisationally-relevant outcomes such negotiation and team creativity. At the base of it, trying to understand where our leaders and employees are coming from may better allow us to appreciate the odd and constrained circumstances in which they are operating, allowing us to help rather than hinder each other.


3. “Create real engagement at work”  Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour

During these coronavirus times, I think it is useful to think about the reset that is happening right now in terms of engagement and what that term really means right now. I’m not talking about engagement, the buzzword increasingly used as a metric for assessing whether our organisation and our teams are with us. I’m talking about what it means scientifically, how workforce engagement has been impacted by the crisis and how effective business leaders will be responding. This can be segmented into three lenses: physical engagement, mental engagement and the space where I can see most potential – emotional engagement.

Physical engagement just means you show up. You bring your hands to work. Now, of course, that has completely changed for most of us; most of us forced to work from home. As work is really just a series of routines and habits, meetings and tasks you have to get through to be able to call it a day, what does work mean now that those routines have been disrupted – not just for days but possibly for months?

Business leaders must help their teams to figure this out, which brings me to the second lens of engagement: mental engagement. Each of us needs to ask: “How do I go about helping my organisation succeed? “What do I do to help the people I serve?” “What is my job?”

Business leaders can and should be helping with this. They can ask the right questions; reach out; be more personal, be more approachable. Just talk with your teams about what their work now entails. Have the conversation about what it is they need to be doing to serve the customer and create some value out there.  

“Each of us needs to ask: “How do I go about helping my organisation succeed? “What do I do to help the people I serve?” “What is my job?”

Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour

In terms of emotional engagement, there really is a big opportunity here for business leaders to engage their colleagues and teams. What we are doing right now is job crafting. We are having to get tasks done more independently, exerting more of our own unique personalities into the work. Research suggests that if you can act in this way, work lights up; it becomes more exciting and enjoyable. So, this is a great thing, and should be leveraged by leaders to strengthen loyalty so that when the crisis finally ends and the economy starts to recover, your top talent will want to stay rather than leave. Business leaders can speak to their teams not just about how they can do their work, but asking about their strengths, asking what they would like to grow into over the next few months; what they would like to practise as they work on their own.

The difficulties we all face during this time are clear. It feels like a jolt. A trauma. But often traumas can teach us something new – about ourselves, about our habits, about what we add to the world. It is only through understanding this can leaders create true engagement at work that people will bring back into the organisation post-crisis.


4. “Reframe your attitude to stress”  Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Thanks to Covid-19, we are all experiencing a heightened level of stress. More than anything else, workplace stress is caused by lack of control. In the short term, there is anxiety around the enormous levels of uncertainty businesses and their workers face. When will things go back to normal and what will normal look like? That leads to the long-term anxiety for both individuals and organisations resulting from an inability to forecast, budget and scenario plan for circumstances one can’t possibly predict.

Combine these anxieties with the complete collapse of the traditional boundaries between work and our home lives and you get an unprecedented cocktail of personal and organisational challenges. Historical examples and existing research studies are of limited value. In this foggy world, however, we can postulate what successful leaders are doing to cope more effectively during this uncertainty. Two things.

Firstly, they are recognising that the challenge becomes how to take more control of the situation. Research on stress shows that, while you can’t control much of what happens, you can always control how you react to it. They will be communicating openly, honestly, succinctly, frequently and using different digital media (email, Zoom calls, videos and other).

Secondly, they are reframing how they respond to this uncertainty. One’s attitude to stress creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you frame stress as a good thing or as an opportunity rather than simply a bad thing, you are likely to cope better in the end. They exemplify Nietzsche’s aphorism: “What does not kill me makes me stronger”. Generally speaking, people tend to fall into three main categories: the fragile -  those who get stressed and become weaker; the robust, those who are resilient and cope well with pressure; and what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as the ‘antifragile’ - those who become stronger as a result of adversity. Which of these categories you fit into is a choice that you can actively make.


5. “Cherish creativity and think differently”  Richard Hynter, Adjunct Professor of Marketing

Some leaders have developed a litany of bad habits that systematically inhibit their people’s ability to think differently. Measuring their leadership effectiveness by the immediacy with which they can provide a solution to any problem, they insert themselves into every problem to be solved; dictate how they should be solved; and attach disproportionate weight to their solutions.

Like asking a heavy smoker, at their lowest ebb, to quit a habit of 80 cigarettes a day, this may seem like a perverse moment to encourage leaders to kick these creativity killers. But at times of existential threat, leaders urgently need to think differently - and they need their people to think differently too.

Effective leaders do not have to be the most creative people on the team. They do have to be the most inspiring. It is their job to energise and protect a culture in which people can develop, assess and implement ideas at pace. They need to know they have your rock-solid support, and to feel no fear.

In their communities, at home and online, people are showing extraordinary inventiveness, overcoming constraints to address challenges created by Coronavirus. Leaders need to get into the habit of inviting their people to channel this ability – and desire – to think differently ‘at work’ on the business of the business.

Creativity is good for personal and collective wellbeing, and our most effective ally when we encounter new contexts and problems we have not seen before. Today’s current context gives leaders an opportunity to practice one of the most important habits to have – inspiring others to be creative.

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