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Personal Development
7 Things To Work On To Be A Great Leader

According to statistics gathered by Zippia, a leading career resource site, only 48% of workers in North America actually see their company's leadership team as high quality. 

For most businesses in North America, that leaves a lot of room for improvement. And for many in leadership roles, it leaves them wondering how to be a good leader who gains the respect of their employees. 

In this article, we discuss nine qualities that the most effective leaders possess.

What does it mean to be a great leader?

While the definition of a great leader is somewhat subjective, many who are considered as such tend to share common skills or abilities. 

The foremost qualities of a great leader are empathy and the ability to listen, but that’s not all that goes into it. Great leaders traditionally:

  • Clearly communicate expectations
  • Motivate their employees
  • Build a clear vision of their company’s goals.

Take Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, as an example. Following the death of Steve Jobs, Cook had big shoes to fill and an even bigger company to lead. Cook is known to be very involved with decision-making, while also encouraging his teams to fearlessly share their thoughts or concerns.

7 Skills and behaviors that great leaders possess and how to work on them

When you think of successful leaders, a few names likely come to mind. People like Steve Jobs, Estee Lauder, and Warren Buffett built their businesses from the ground up and became extremely successful.

While each of them is known for their confidence and business know-how, a deeper look at each person's leadership style makes it clear that they all possess several common skills and behaviors.

The nine attributes listed below are common among true leaders—leaders who drive success, not just for their companies or the teams directly beneath them, but also for the people who work alongside them every day. 

To become a better leader, think about where you stand when it comes to the skills and behaviors listed below, and consider doing what you can to work on each. 

With great leadership comes great responsibility, so take it upon yourself to work as hard as you can to become the strong leader your team needs you to be.

Honesty

As the people who are responsible for the success of an entire team, or even an entire company, good leaders know that being honest with their team members, even when the feedback isn't great, is vital.

Being able to have a truthful conversation with an employee about their performance, skill, or dedication to their work is an important part of effective leadership.

While the truth can sometimes hurt, being honest with people regarding how you feel is the only way to work through difficult situations. This is what ex-Googler Kim Scott calls ‘Radical Candour’, or being truthful while still showing that you care.

Just as it's important to be honest about their subordinates, effective leaders need to recognize where their own skills fall short and where they shine. As Chinwe Esimai, Managing Director and Chief Anti-Bribery Officer at Citigroup, writes in Forbes, executives who took the time to self-assess learned how to leverage their skills in different situations.

Coaching

As a manager, it’s important to lead efficiently. However, your team will always benefit from good coaching. Coaching differs from managing in that you shouldn’t be directing team members. Ideally, you’ll want to guide individual team members down desired paths. Here are a few key things to keep in mind as you play the role of coach:

  • Avoid giving all the answers: you want your people to find the answers for themselves, as that’s what will boost their confidence and help them grow in their roles. Guide them and only step in when you deem it necessary.
  • You should be asking the questions: While this might seem counterintuitive, you should be the one asking questions. This is one of the best ways to push team members to think and search for answers.

Related read: How To Go From Manager To Coach

Curiosity

curiosity graphic

A curious, open-minded leader never wants to stop learning and growing. For team members, that usually indicates that their team leader is always willing to improve and do better. The leader's curiosity keeps employees engaged and excited to be a part of the team. 

When it comes to curiosity in leadership, the most notable leader who comes to mind is Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple. Jobs was famous for his curiosity and openness to employee suggestions, which led to an array of innovative technology solutions.

In 2005, Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford University and mentioned how his curiosity led to innovation and invention: “Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.” For example, while at Stanford, he took a calligraphy class, an experience he said helped shape Apple’s beautiful typography.

Work on your curiosity as a leader by seeking out new situations and staying open to suggestions from your employees and welcoming their opinions. Don't be afraid to explore different ways of doing things, and encourage your team to think outside the box as often as possible.

Shifting perspectives can be a challenge, so consider these tips:

  • Start with your final goal and work backwards from there.
  • Consider a brainstorm session with your team, but conduct it on a timer and in a closed location such as an office or conference room.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure and let your team know that their curiosity should guide them.

Mentoring

Mentoring is an important part of leadership. As a senior employee, there is a chance that you’ll eventually take a more junior person under your wing. By mentoring them, you’ll be using your experience and expertise to pass vital information and processes to a new generation. 

Mentoring can be as simple as providing best practices for working with company tools or as in-depth as giving career advice. Your mentee expects you to offer insight when they're making decisions or facing problems. 

Consider the leadership style of Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin. Branson may be an eccentric leader but he’s also known for sharing his business prowess and knowledge with others, helping those with a desire to learn and enter the world of entrepreneurship. 

Branson’s goals with mentoring are twofold. Not only does he set up businesses for success, he also allows himself the latitude to step back when needed. 

His thoughts are evident in a 2005 Wharton piece in which he states “I have to be good at helping people run the individual businesses, and I have to be willing to step back. The company must be set up so it can continue without me.”

As a mentor to your employees, provide them with new ways to approach situations, and don't be afraid to be honest with them if you don't think they're making good choices. 

Furthermore, take time to check in with your mentee on a regular schedule. Add a weekly reminder to your calendar to call or visit them for a chat that's focused solely on your mentor-mentee relationship.

Empathy

Empathy is often said to be the most important trait in a great leader. An empathetic leader isn't just one who listens to their employees' frustrations; it's one who speaks to them on a relatable level and strives to understand the challenges they face personally and professionally. 

According to a survey conducted by EY, 89% of workers agreed that empathy makes their leader a better person while 88% said an empathetic leader drives positive change in the workplace.

If you want to be a more empathetic leader, take time each day to see what challenges and successes your team is experiencing. Give them the opportunity to share frustrations, and listen to them actively without judgment. When possible, offer solutions and support to help them overcome their hurdles.

Related read: Engaging Employees Through Empathetic Leadership: What I Learned

Values

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If you have great values, your team members and leaders above you will notice. Think about who you are and what you value as a leader. Is it respect? Honesty? Communication? Make a list of 5 to 10 values that are nearest to your heart, share them with your team, and commit yourself to abiding by them in everything you do at work.

In fact, a 2018 study indicated that 63% of consumers prefer to purchase their goods or services from companies with a strong set of values and leaders who display high morals.

Accepting criticism

It's never easy to hear someone criticize you or the way you do things, but, if nobody took time to offer you constructive criticism, you might never recognize that there's room for you to improve. 

In an article published by Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Porter, Managing Partner of leadership and team development firm, The Boda Group, discussed the importance of obtaining honest and productive feedback as a business leader, suggesting that it’s important for leaders to ask their team members for feedback often.

As a leader, you have to be willing to take the bad with the good when it comes to feedback. When someone offers you criticism, as difficult as it can be, don't take it personally. Instead, accept it as a challenge, and strive to make positive change if and when it's warranted.

Strong Leaders Never Stop Learning

never stop learning graphic

When you're learning how to be a good leader, the best way to build your leadership skills is to practice leading with honesty, empathy, and strong core values. And, of course, never stop learning and improving.

Some further resources to help:

By Tim Reitsma

Tim is the co-founder and General Manager of People Managing People, an online publication focused on building a better world of work. He is experienced with people & culture, leadership, business strategy and operations with a focus on building great teams who are excited about their craft and their organization. With over 15 years of leadership experience, Tim has always been guided by his core values: faith, family, curiosity, and fun. He is a coach, mentor, speaker, advisor, and an active volunteer in his community. Tim loves spending time outdoors with his wife and two kids as well as mountain biking in the north shore mountains.

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