Our habits define us. They lie at the very core of our being, shaping how we view the world, and, more importantly, how we view ourselves. In this way, habits are the building blocks of identity — and your identity naturally shapes your company.
People take decades to build their identities. They win, lose, suffer, triumph, and learn and unlearn over the course of their lifespan to form who they are. Because of this, identities are something that humans will fight tooth and nail to uphold.
This is precisely why I place great weight on the habits of the startup CEOs I work with. Habits reveal far more about a person than their LinkedIn network or postgraduate degree(s) ever can. When it comes to startup CEOs, I've found there are 5 habits in particular that decide whether they are truly exceptional or just average.
1. They fight on the front lines
It is said that Alexander the Great, King of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, led his men into battles from the front, ate meals with them, and abstained from drinking water when there wasn't enough to go around. Because of this, the loyalty of his soldiers was unparalleled.
While today's CEOs don't have to charge into hordes of enemy soldiers to gain the respect of their subjects, they should still fight on the front lines from time to time and never ask members of their team to do a task they haven’t done in the past. Elon Musk's recent defiance of Alameda county orders is a prime example of modern day "front line" leadership.
When there's a battle (there will be many), exceptional CEOs have a habit of getting on the front lines and fighting alongside their people.
2. They take care of their health
CEOs that exercise often, eat a balanced diet, and look after their mental health have greater mental agility, energy, and confidence than those who don't. Strong personal health habits may even become an unspoken prerequisite for the CEOs of tomorrow, given how health-conscious younger generations are becoming.
3. They make time for family and friends
While it's true that the role of CEO is an intense, demanding one — one that often has you at odds with your family and social life — great CEOs find a way to make time for their loved ones. That's not to say they won't miss the odd birthday or date night with the wife/husband.
It's the CEOs that make a habit of blaming their relationship troubles on work that I'm wary of. Scapegoating like that usually points to deeper issues.
4. They are obsessed with learning
When it comes to learning, I'm often reminded of a quote from Zen master Shunryo Suzuki,
“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.”
In other words, those without ego and that identify as a 'beginner' (regardless of their actual skill level or knowledge) are often more open to new ideas. Those that identify as an 'expert' are typically more close-minded.
CEOs who habituate learning — whether it’s about their competitors or the latest technological advancements in their industry — are the kind of leaders you want to be around. CEOs who think they know everything, on the other hand, are difficult to work with and have likely plateaued. Their arrogance will inevitably lead to mediocre results.
5. They champion a grand vision
Many great products have fallen by the wayside or failed to live up to their potential simply because management lacked vision. That's why vision — something typically scoffed at by outsiders and nonbelievers — is so important. A CEO that constantly champions their vision is someone who firmly believes in their cause and is thus capable of inspiring others (i.e. employees, investors, consumers).
Exceptional startup CEOs live deliberately
The best startup CEOs I've worked with developed habits that allowed them to live a well-rounded, full life. They fought on the front lines, took care of themselves and their loved ones, had an insatiable curiosity for innovation, and believed in creating a better world.