You’ve seen it on the playground, those swaggering, take-charge children who seem to be the boss of everything and everybody, never stopping to wonder how to be a leader. They just do it.
While many people debate whether leaders are born or raised, most researchers agree that while some people are born with leadership capabilities, such skills can definitely be acquired. And for those already in a leadership role, they can further develop these capabilities in themselves and others.
Although we often use the terms leadership and management interchangeably, they are not the same. A manager is responsible for a group of employees, directing and overseeing their actions in order to accomplish a predetermined goal. A leader, in contrast, may not have a single employee. Instead, leaders have the ability to influence a group of followers to contribute to organizational success. This occurs whether or not they are officially in charge.
In order to attract followers, they must regularly meet the needs of the people who engage with them. According to research by the Gallup Institute, those needs include trust, compassion, stability and hope. Followers get behind leaders because they see them behaving consistently in ways that demonstrate integrity and a sense of caring about them as people. Leaders are anchors in a world that increasingly lacks stability, providing those who follow a positive vision for the future.
Leaders have many great traits and characteristics that they continue to develop over time. The most progressive are aware of their own limitations and capabilities and they realize that leadership skills are like muscles — they will only get to the next level by continuing to develop their skills.
Here are six of the most essential traits leaders can develop.
Visionary: Followers are inspired by a bold and compelling vision. A compelling vision is one that engages the mind as well as the heart. It reaches beyond simply making the numbers. A compelling vision infuses energy into a team and gets them excited to start work each day. It captures the imagination and encourages the group to have hope, and to see a positive and vivid picture of the future. When followers embrace the vision, they find a way to make it happen.
Effective communicator: It’s often said that communication is a two-way street. But it’s more accurately described as a busy, urban highway. There are many things that can come between the intended message and its target. Leaders take responsibility for ensuring effective communication, developing the ability to deliver clear, complete, accurate and concise messages. It is a lifetime pursuit, in part, accomplished by learning to do the following:
Assess the situation
Understand the audience and its needs
Check their egos at the door
Resilient: Leaders need resilience, that ability to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and keep going in the face of obstacles. Resilient leaders exhibit other characteristics, as well. They are flexible. If part of the plan doesn’t work, they are persistent enough to adapt their tactics and pursue other options. Resilient leaders are also able to take responsibility for failures without letting negative thoughts overcome their good intentions.
Critical thinker: Critical thinkers are able to regulate their emotions to analyze the facts and draw rational inferences. That’s a fancy way of saying they are good at solving problems. Beyond finding answers, however, the best leaders use the information they receive to manage effectively in complex environments and set attainable, yet inspirational, goals.
Team builder: The strongest leaders are adept at creating and maintaining trusted relationships and partnerships. They typically have a strong network cultivated over several years and they seldom miss the chance to interact with new people. For them, networking is mostly about connecting with others. If they can help one another, that’s a bonus. Leaders not only build strong teams themselves, they also look for opportunities outside of their teams to meet and encourage other groups.
Continuous learner: Leaders like Bill Gates credit reading as one of their primary ways of learning. These knowledge seekers are self-aware enough to know that they don’t have all the answers. They actively find ways to educate themselves further and develop their leadership capabilities. This may include reading, researching, attending classes and workshops, listening to podcasts, selecting strong role models, and developing a community of mentor relationships.
Keep in mind that leaders will not always carry the baton. The best leaders know when they must step into the followership role. When the leaders follow others, they are team players, able to contribute to the bigger picture. They are also learning how to be better leaders themselves.
When you consider the list of essential skills, it’s clear that it’s not so difficult to learn or enhance your capabilities. And you don’t have to be in an executive or managerial position to do it. Even if you work by yourself or in a small team, you can find positions that will help you develop your leadership acumen. Here are just a few that may help you think of others.
Volunteer for special assignments: When your company needs someone to step up for a one-off task or project, volunteer your services. If such opportunities don’t exist, create your own. If you see something that needs to be done, ask to do it. It could be as simple as coordinating recycling efforts or as complicated as heading up a Toys for Tots drive. Perhaps you feel that the onboarding process for new employees could be smoother. Raise your hand.
Start a work-related club: Are you an avid reader of business titles? If you’re interested in leadership, perhaps you should be. Start a book club that reads the latest management titles. Or perhaps you could start a Toastmasters group, a multicultural networking lunch, or a women’s technology meetup. Depending on the company, you could create a group that amplifies an aspect of the culture, like fitness, or foreign language skills, or even an organizational culture club.
Join community organizations: There are volunteer opportunities even in small towns. You can tutor in afterschool programs, deliver meals to seniors, or distribute boxes at a local food bank. Before you dismiss these as non-leadership roles, think again. You may need to start by flipping pancakes at a community event, but someone needs to organize the whole thing. It’s not too difficult to land leadership spots, even board positions, in a non-profit community group.
Seek feedback: If you are currently in a leadership role or have the opportunity in the future, listen to feedback from your followers. They will frequently offer advice, whether or not you solicit it. When followers are disgruntled, it’s often for a legitimate reason. This is the opportunity to practice your effective communication skills to determine why. However, it’s always good practice to ask for feedback even when things are going according to plan. It’s one of the best ways to let your followers know that you care about them.
In addition to development opportunities, there are books and classes that can help you hone your leadership skills. Although there are hundreds of great management titles out there, here are a few to get you started.
Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, et al.
Science journalist details how and why leaders resonate with people.
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sanderson
Facebook’s second-in-command explains how women can avoid missing career opportunities.
Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams
Georgia politician and voting rights activist provides instructions for using your unique perspective as an outsider.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
This century-old classic breaks down the art of persuasion and other leadership soft skills.
The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams That Win Consistently by Tom Dungy
Former NFL coach explains how to elevate those around you for success.
LinkedIn Learning offers dozens of courses, free with a subscription plan, and reasonably priced at under $50 for non-subscribers. Some of the most popular include the following:
Leadership Tips, Tactics and Advice
Harvard University offers a selection of online leadership courses ranging from free to several thousand dollars. They include, for example, the following:
Become a More Resilient Leader in Turbulent Times
Exercising Leadership: Foundational Principles
Becoming a Leader: Developing Your Style and Making Sound Decisions
Also, there are many business topics available as TED Talks. Create a TED account and customize your recommendations according to the topics that interest you.
Leadership competencies are developed over time. Anyone can be in charge. But it takes a special set of skills to be a true leader. The most important traits are those that allow you to continuously grow, as well as develop leaders around you. If you take the time to cultivate these skills, you will be better positioned to advance your career and improve the quality of your work life.
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