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9 Ways to Think Like a Leader


Leaders think differently.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to shadow the CEO of a major technology company for one day. That one day changed my life forever. Walking through the hallways of his company, hearing him interact on phone calls and watching him tackle projects and challenges was like nothing I had ever seen before.

He was a human behavior hacker.

Every single one of his actions was based on how humans work. Throughout the day, he would turn to me secretly and whisper the explanation behind the behavior we had just witnessed. That day was the start of my fascination with people and the hidden forces that make us tick. Since then, I have studied hundreds of leaders like him looking for patterns.

Leaders do think differently, and the research behind their success is solid. Here is what we found:

9 Ways to Think Like a Leader, leadership, how to think like a leader

The 9 Mental Habits of Leaders:

What makes a leader different? Here are the biggest research-backed differences:

1. They go for the small yes.

Leaders are extremely adept at getting people to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

Two researchers—Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser decided to test out how exactly to get people to do something. They went door to door in a small neighborhood and asked people if they would put a large sign on their front lawn that said “Drive Carefully.” Only 20% of people said that they would put the sign up in their yard. I was actually surprised a full 20% said yes, but it was still a small percent. Then, they asked people if they would put a smaller three-inch sign saying “Drive Carefully” in their window. Many more people said yes to this. Then, the researchers came back three weeks later and asked those same people to put the much bigger sign in their yard. This time, 76% of the people said they would put the larger sign on their lawn.

What does this study tell us? A LOT. It is the perfect example of how asking for a small request first will help you get a ‘yes’ to a bigger request later. Why does this work? People who first put the small sign up began to feel helpful. They also went into a mental as well as a physical agreement with the researchers to drive safely. In fact, these people most likely felt like very good citizens for putting the sign up. Therefore, when researchers returned and asked for the larger sign, they had very few barriers to break. The homeowners had already been in agreement with the researchers, had already thought of themselves as helpful citizens and they had already changed the look of their house by adding a message. Making it bigger would take very little mental change, and this is why 76% said yes the second time.

  • Leaders never start with the big ask. They know that they have to get small buy-ins first.
  • Takeaway: Don’t go for the big ask right up front. Get the small yes and earn the big one.

2. They embrace the Pygmalion Effect.

If you want to motivate the people around you, put away your wallet, don’t offer a bonus and whip out the compliments. A study by Professor Norihiro Sadato and his associates about social rewards found that receiving praise–not cash–was the best way to motivate participants. This is counterintuitive–most of our society is structured around using cash motivators to increase our happiness. When you perform well at your job, you get a salary increase. When you want to reward an employee, you give them a bonus. When you need to incentivize a child to do well, you dole out an allowance.

However, when researchers asked 48 participants to complete a finger-tapping activity, the groups that received praise for their performance showed a significantly higher rate of improvement relative to other participants. Why is this the case? First, the researchers also discovered that social rewards like praise are registered in the same part of the brain that light up when the subject is rewarded with actual money! Second, when you assign someone a positive label, like having high intelligence or being a good person, that actually cues them up to live up to that label. This is called the Pygmalion Effect. In one study about fundraising, the researchers told average donors that they were in fact among the highest donors. Can you guess what happened? Those donors then did in fact donate above average.

  • Leaders constantly give their team and those around them genuinely good labels (it doesn’t work if you are fake or manipulative.) They want everyone around them to live up to their best selves.
  • Take-Away: Give praise, not cash. Be sure to stick to positive truths. You can say, “You are one of our best customers” or “You’re such a pleasure to do business with”. In that way, they will actually want to be one of your best customers and try even harder to be a pleasure to do business with.

3. They avoid empty calorie time.

Have you ever spent hours doing something and then realized later that it was a complete waste of time? This is especially frustrating when the activity itself had absolutely no purpose or benefit. I call this empty calorie time—we waste time doing nothing, but still use valued brain energy.

Leaders are extremely purposeful with their mental calories. They don’t waste mental energy on junk activities. They consume and stick with nutritious mental nuggets.

Here’s why we are sucked into empty calorie activities. We are:

  • Too tired to do anything productive.
  • Want to stop working, but feel too guilty to take a real break.
  • Are bored.
  • Are procrastinating from a project or activity that we dread.

According to one study, when people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling happy only 56% of the time. That is because in mind-wandering, our brain can’t recuperate and it can’t build–it’s stuck in limbo. Like eating cotton candy when you are hungry, you are eating, but it isn’t helping much.

  • Leaders are extremely judicious with their mental energy. If they want to take a break, they do a real break–not watching TV or skimming Facebook. They let their mind take a real break with exercise, meditation, yoga or creative activities, which actually boost brain activity.
  • Take-Away: As more and more devices, games and social networks enter into our lives, we have to protect our time. If you need a break, actually take a mental break–don’t fill it with empty calorie activities.

4. They set big f***ing goals. 

Your goals should terrify you just a little bit.

In my post about Elite Minds, I talk about how you should only be 60% sure you are going to achieve your goal. It should make you sweat a little when you think about it. According to a study published online in the Journal of Consumer Research, being more ambitious actually makes you happier. Those who set high goals are more satisfied than their counterparts with lower expectations. University of California-Riverside professor Cecile K. Cho had one group of research participants pick stocks and set a high target rate of return. They were told they could set a rate between 6% and 20%. The low goal setters were not nearly as happy with their winnings AND were more disappointed by their losses. Big goal setters were more happy with their winnings AND less disappointed by their losses. When we set big goals, we get big rewards. Even if we lose, we feel like we gave it our best try, which is fulfilling in a different way.

  • Leaders never set a goal they know they can achieve. Their fear of failure sparks their fire.
  • Take-Away: Push yourself, set big goals and get big rewards.

5. Abandon revenge. It’s not worth it.

Revenge is like throwing a hot coal at someone else—we burn our own hand more than the person we are trying to hurt. Study after study has found that when we make business or life decisions out of revenge—or the desire to hurt someone else,–we only end up losing money or having more difficulty ourselves. There are a few ways research has found to curb vengeful thoughts:

  • Get perspective: Think of bigger problems to get your situation into perspective.
  • Write it down: Expressive writing about your anger and upset have shown to lessen the feelings entirely, giving you relief without having to act on your revenge.

These are great, but I have an even better idea: Understand the Psychology of Revenge

  • Leaders turn their revenge into the desire to succeed.
  • Take-Away: Never act on revenge. The best revenge is massive success.

6. They talk to themselves.

Leaders talk to themselves in a very specific way. In other words, their self-talk sounds different than non-leaders. The popularity of the Law of Attraction and other philosophies that prescribe the use of positive mantras don’t quite get it right. Repeating in your head over and over again that you want to get a raise will most likely not affect your salary in any way. Instead, a review of over 25 studies found that the most effective kind of self-talk is called “instructional self-talk.”

Instructional self-talk is the internal commentary that happens while we are trying to complete a challenging activity or task. For example, while completing a difficult report at work, your instructional self-talk might sound like, “Ok open up Powerpoint, find a title image, make a chart on the recent statistics…” This kind of self-talk actually helps us in ways we are just beginning to understand. Researchers believe it helps us battle distractions and keep us logical with our tasks.

Researchers also found that self-talk is the most successful when thinkers first ruminate on their end-goal, make a plan and then walk through it. So, try planning out what you want to do before starting.

  • Leaders give themselves instructional self-pep-talks and walk themselves through almost every task. This makes them purposeful and effective.
  • Take-Away: Use instructional self-talk, not mantras to reach your goals.

7. They have decided that they will be awesome. 

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a world-renowned musician or a critically acclaimed novelist? In 1997, Gary McPherson decided to study musicians—namely, what exactly contributed to a successful musician. Was it practice? Genetics? Environment? He studied 157 randomly selected kids as they picked and learned a musical instrument. Some went on to be professional musicians and others quit playing after they left school. He was looking for patterns. Were there traits or characteristics that all of the successful musicians had?

Amazingly, it was not the obvious ones. It was not IQ, aural sensitivity, math skills, natural rhythm or even their parents that dictated success. There was only one question that provided a clue to indicate which students would be successful and which wouldn’t. He asked each participant before they even selected their instrument one question:

“How long do you think you will play the instrument you choose?”

The answer to this question predicted whether or not a student would be successful. If they thought they would play an instrument their whole life, they did better. If they thought they would only play temporarily, they did not play as well. Their success had nothing to do with skills—it was all about their attitude!

We do not need any inherent skills to be able to be good at what we do. We only need an attitude that we are going to stick with it. Our minds and skills set will grow with us as we stick to our goals. How can we use McPherson’s study in our own life?

  • Leaders have decided that they are and will be awesome.
  • Take-Away: Throw away unhelpful mindsets like “I wouldn’t be good at,” or “I could never.” Decide to be awesome at what you do–because you are!

For over 40 years, John C. Maxwell has inspired individuals to live out leadership. His valued advice to leaders is:

“Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.” – John C. Maxwell

So in addition to deciding awesomeness, decide what deserves a “yes.”

Pledge It: I’m awesome! click to tweet

8. They don’t explain, they question.

What are the conversations you have with yourself in your head? Researcher Albarracín Senay thought self-talk would be an interesting angle to study. He wanted to see if the sentence structure or the types of words our mind uses to talk to ourselves, changes our plans and actions. He decided to test this by having participants in his experiment work on a set of anagrams where they had to change the words (like kale to lake). Before participants did this, Senay asked one group to simply think about whether they would work on anagrams, and he asked the other groups to think about the fact that they would be doing anagrams soon. The first group went into wondering mode: “Will I?” and the second group was gearing up their will to do something: “I will.”

Which group do you think did better? The group with the wondering minds did many more anagrams than the willful group! Participants who made their minds open were more successful than those who were trying to will themselves. This seems illogical. Our will should make us more successful not less, right? Not always. Freedom of choice was given to the wonderers, and this might be an intrinsic motivation to do better.

Senay tried this again by having two groups of participants write out the statements: “Will I?” and “I will.” They then had to work on anagrams. Again, the “Will I?” group performed better. Senay also wanted to try a real life experiment. To do this, he had participants think about “Will I?” or “I will” before exercising. “Will I?” again produced a better commitment from volunteers to exercise. When they were asked about their new goals, those who had been primed in wondering mode stated positive motivations for exercise like wanting to feel healthy and having a good lifestyle. While those who were trying to assert their will, stated reasons like guilt and shame for not working out!

  • Leaders ask themselves, ask others and ask the world.
  • Take-Away: Instead of willing yourself to achieve, question yourself to success.

9. They are happier.

I’m going to tell you something crazy, and you’re not going to believe me. But it’s the hard truth:

Success doesn’t bring happiness. Happiness brings success.

The research on happiness is clear: if we want to be more successful, we should focus on happiness. If you’re like me, you have frequently thought, “When I achieve ___, I will be happy.” or “After I get ___, then I’ll be happy.” This doesn’t work! We have been studying happiness for over 4 years at our lab, asking people inappropriately personal questions, comparing their results and looking for patterns.

Leaders are happier.

One of the biggest happy aha-moments we had was realizing that the best leaders don’t put happiness second. They understand that if they are happier, the people around them will be happier, they will be better communicators and have a bigger impact.

  • Leaders know that if they don’t prioritize their happiness, no one else will.
  • Take-Away: Don’t put your happiness second. You deserve to find joy–invest in it and success will follow.

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 All Rights Reserved + COPYRIGHT 2015 Science of People, LLC

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


10 Comments


  1. Ian Luebbers

    I love that leaders are the ones that decide to be awesome. Simply changing your mindset and telling yourself that you are fully committed to something and are in it for the long term can have tremendous benefits, as I have personally experienced. Dipping your toes in the water doesn’t make you a better leader – committing to doing an amazing job does.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Absolutely! It’s amazing to me how a simple change in mindset can have extraordinary effects. Thanks for reading, Ian!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

      1. Michael Angelo

        Not really, #8 speaks to setting your will on the task or goal compared to allowing free will pondering, while #7 is refering to the metal attitude you have about yourself as a person from the begining, even before you know or learn what the project, task, or goal is.

  2. Pingback: 9 Ways to Think Like a Leader | Science of Peop...

  3. Kiruwka Moklyuk

    Thank you so much for this post, @vvanedwards, these tips are feeling sooo right. I found those especially close to my soul: super-ambitious scary goals, impact of revenge, and true value of happiness.

    I would love to learn more about your very first experience shadowing the CEO, you mention in the beginning. Would it be possible ?

    Thanks again and greetings from Brussels, Belgium.

    Kirill.

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