THE BLOG
01/10/2014 05:07 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2014

The Top Three Things Leaders Do To Differentiate Themselves

My wife and I were invited to a dinner last night that some great financial advisors hold, now and then, for entrepreneurs, business owners, and CEOs who live in our area. About three hours before we were due to sit down to the meal, one of the hosts sent me an email asking whether I might say a few words after dinner on a topic like "three things top leaders do to differentiate themselves," and perhaps provide some advice that everyone present could use as we all move into a new year.

After reading this nice, though somewhat last minute, request, I did a quick mental scan of the successful entrepreneurs, business owners, and CEOs, nationally and internationally, that I've gotten to know best over the years, and asked myself what stood out in their lives, apart from anything that the popular leadership books and business experts of our time may already be telling us. And when I focused in particular on the element of sustainable leadership success, a few things rose to the surface right away. So here's the leadership advice that I consequently now have for 2014. Please treat it with all due respect, since I did spend all of ten minutes figuring it out for my unexpected and impromptu talk. The great people at dinner reacted well to it, though that could have been just a result of the nice wine served - but still, I thought it might be good to share it here. Cheers.

To Do As Exemplary Leaders Do, in the New Year:

1. Take Care of Yourself. Leaders naturally focus a great deal of their time and energy on taking care of their organizations and the demands of their business. But unless they also take care of themselves, they soon burn out. Things begin to bother them a little more than they should. Small obstacles start to loom large. Imperfect implementation on the part of an associate may get under their skin and make them a little angrier than the situation warrants. The stress builds up, and sometimes leads to rash coping behavior that can create even worse problems.

The most exemplary leaders, over the long run, it seems to me, tend to be people who take care of themselves, physically and mentally. One high profile business founder and leader I know is one of the fittest people I've ever met. He can out-walk almost anyone, hiking the Appalachian Trail or just striding down the street in his neighborhood. And his study at home is piled high with books, full of volumes of all kinds - not just leadership books, but history and philosophy and religion and everything. He reads an amazing amount for a person in his position. He works hard to take care of his body and his mind. So should we all.

What do you need that you've been neglecting? More regular exercise? Some leisure reading? Time with family or friends? Meditative, alone time? A spa visit? I'm not kidding. Take care of yourself, physically and mentally in the New Year, in order to be your best as a leader.

2. Find New Inspiration. Chances are that, especially if you're in a leadership position, you're doing what you're doing because, at some point along the way, something or someone inspired you. But most inspiration has a shelf life. Put another way, you can't surf on the same wave your entire life. Human nature is fickle. Our enthusiasm can wax and wane. We need renewal. And of course, serendipity sometimes takes care of this. A surprisingly inspirational book may just end up on your night table. You happen to meet an amazing person. A film strikes deep and you walk away energized. But we shouldn't rely on happenstance here, for something so important. We really owe it to ourselves to actively seek out new sources of inspiration that will energize us and give us a new sense of purpose and motivation for what we're doing. Only then can we best inspire and energize others.

Without new inspiration, we eventually become dry wells, fruit trees with bare limbs, or perhaps even squawking chickens without eggs. Substitute here whatever similar metaphor you'd prefer. A prominent, leading television personality confided to me once that, in middle age, he had decided to learn how to play the piano. It was a new source of inspiration for him. Some accomplished people try a new sport, or learn to cook like a real chef. Others get involved with a volunteer organization for the first time, or when they can, serve at a soup kitchen, or a food pantry, and always come away inspired. A few years ago, I started reading some of the great literary classics I had never studied in college. A few of them brought me a huge wave of new inspiration, confirming why they're still read after all these centuries.

I've come to a new appreciation for why so many of the business leaders I admire seem to seek out new forms and sources of inspiration, to keep their own energies high, and their sense of purpose keen. Where can you find new inspiration this year? There are many potential sources, and perhaps some in unexpected places.

3. Tell Good Stories. The best leaders are good storytellers. If you want to do new things in the New Year and do them well, tell vivid stories to support your efforts. We human beings were storytellers and story-hearers long before we were writers or readers or modern business builders. We each live our own narrative and respond viscerally to the narratives of others. Famed Hollywood producer Peter Guber wrote a book a few years ago, called Tell to Win, about the power of story in our lives. He basically says that, at a certain point in his career, he came to realize that when he went into a pitch meeting with a lot of facts and statistics and logic, he often didn't get the business or backing he had sought. But when he went in with a great story, he most often left with a great deal.

You don't have to be J.K. Rowling or John Grisham to tell good stories. But you do have to be convinced that what you're doing is important. And you have to want to motivate the people around you to join in with your vision. Finally, you have to pay attention to the stories around you that you see, or hear about, and then pass them on. A news report, a client's letter, or a scene in a movie -- almost anything can provide you with good material. To touch the hearts and minds of others, pass on what touches you. Tell stories. You'll often benefit, as the teller, as much as others do when they hear. Make your stories short, vivid, and gripping. They can then spark others to greatness. You don't have to be an extroverted, charismatic, enthralling weaver of yarns. But you do have to speak from the heart. Then, magic can happen that even Ms. Rowling would approve.

Maybe there's also a fourth thing here. And, if so, here it is.

4. Cultivate an Open Mind. If there is any guarantee about the future at all, it's that it will be interestingly different from the past. So, obviously, we can't just continue to do everything like we always did. Top leaders know that, and cultivate an open mind and attitude toward the new, the innovative, and the novel approach that may just veer outside the collective comfort zone. Openness may end up being one of the most important human qualities for sustaining and continuing an overall trajectory of success over time.

I recently came across a blog post where a man who had often criticized the late Steve Jobs, during his history of business innovations, basically said, "You know, as it turned out, Steve was often right, and I was often wrong. I'm sorry I almost always doubted him. He showed us that things could be done in very new ways, breaking the paradigms that governed our thinking, and sometimes turning things on their heads. I should have been more open minded." I never knew him, but people who did tell me that Steve Jobs came to many things with the essentially Zen Beginners Mind, which is, at its core, an Open Mind. His biggest innovations happened because of it, and his biggest mistakes occurred when he veered away from it.

How can you and I open our minds in new ways this year? I'm glad that when I got that last minute email about giving a talk on something I had never spoken on, or even thought about, I allowed myself to be open to jumping in and asking some new questions and learning something new from both old friends and great examples of distinctive leadership whose lives can provide us with good advice for the New Year. I hope you find it useful to both ponder and practice.