This article on the skills of effective leaders first appeared in 2015 and was updated to reflect new information on leadership skills in April 2021. For additional resources on leadership effectiveness, subscribe to our blog.
Successful leaders. You’ll find articles, white papers, assessments, and videos dedicated to what makes a successful leader. In fact, the traits of a successful leader, while long studied, tend to shift and change slightly depending on the state of the workforce. However, some traits simply do NOT change. Empathy, for example, will always be a key leadership skill. The ability to quickly act and make decisions is also something virtually every leader needs.
The traits of successful leaders are not written in stone but instead open to interpretation. Training the leadership in your workforce takes a deep understanding of the traits, skills, and abilities your organization needs. Here are a few places to start:
What are the traits of successful leaders?
- Empathy: The ability to listen, understand, and truly put oneself in another’s place is crucial to sustained, healthy leadership. By listening attentively with the goal of learning and understanding, leaders can not only acquire new ideas and methods, but they can also uncover the interests, motivations, and concerns of their team members.
- Assertiveness: The ability to assert your will in a large group of people is important for leadership. While this doesn’t come naturally to everyone, fortunately, it’s a skill that can be learned.
- Resilience: Good leaders avoid personalizing complaints and criticism and use rejection as a source of learning. In leadership, modeling how to handle crises or unexpected pitfalls is critical.
- Ego strength: The quality of the people in a workforce comes down to the quality of its leadership. Leaders make things happen. They make the people around them better. Part of this is having the ego strength to maintain course and move on lest a bad attitude hamper performance. Not only do leaders need to cultivate strong ego strength, but they also have to make sure their employees do, too.
- Energy: The potential to sustain a high level of activity over extended periods is critical for leaders. Unfortunately, business issues do not have a timetable, and great leaders must have the ability to guide their people through a high level of activity in the workplace.
One of the reasons why it is such a popular topic is because leaders (well, good ones at least) want to continually develop their skill sets to be more effective. Likewise, organizations want the secret sauce to effective leadership as a way to increase profit. It is now almost a cliché for a company to say that they need to invest in their people in order to be successful. But what does that really mean?
To me, it means that organizations need to invest in and understand two key areas. First, they need to understand what types of people are successful in their environment and select people who possess the right skills. Second, they need to find ways to develop the individuals and leaders who may not currently possess that skill set.
How do you invest in your people to be successful?
- Recognize and understand which types of people are successful in the work environment.
- Improve selection processes in order to hire and promote the people with the right skills.
- Create a gap analysis between the ideal profile and current employees struggling.
- Develop the individuals and leaders who may not currently possess the desired skill set.
For the past ten years, I have been working with organizations to help answer these two key questions. I have learned a few things over this time. Although there are differences from one organization to the next and from one industry to the next, there are some clear and common themes that emerge as they relate to leadership effectiveness.
The following five skills have come up in almost every leadership discussion I have had. It is clear that if a leader can do these things (and sometimes if they can do just three of them really well) they can be effective.
Ability to lead and influence others
So much of being a leader depends on if you can “rally the troops.” Having the confidence to lead a team and be influential is a tremendous asset. If the leader cannot influence others to become motivated around a common goal, they will struggle to be effective.
What it looks like: A last-minute project comes in, and instead of insisting everyone stay, a good leader can enlist their help without demands or micromanagement. Instead, she offers a plan that leverages the team’s strengths, takes into account their needs and schedules, and tackles the project alongside her team.
Ability to relate and interact with peers, subordinates, and superiors
A strong leader needs to be effective and interact with individuals from all levels within the organization. We all know about the leaders who can manage up. These are the individuals who can convince their boss they are a gift from God, but they cannot fool their direct reports. Effective leaders have the ability to communicate and collaborate with individuals from all levels.
What it looks like: A manager ensuring he takes time to learn from each person on the team, recognizing how things may have changed or shifted since he was in the role, and preparing the leader to step in when needed. This also offers his employees the opportunity to stretch their own leadership muscles.
Ability to analyze information and make decisions
This one goes without saying, but this list would not be complete without mentioning pure intelligence. Leaders who are able to analyze information and make good decisions are more effective than their counterparts. However, this may appear to be simpler than it really is. The leader not only needs the mental horsepower to interpret information, but they also need the personality and confidence to trust in the decisions they make and follow through with them.
What it looks like: Realizing a direct report is struggling to wrap his head around a new concept, the manager stays late to help him map it out, showing him the process as he goes, even though it takes longer. This leader models “connect the dots” thinking to the entire team, and they know help is there to suss out a thorny issue if and when needed.
Ability to execute and deliver
Organizations love leaders who can just plain and simple get stuff done. After a decision is made or a strategic plan is set, it needs to be executed, or the strategy will fail. Leaders who have the drive to create urgency around projects and tasks also have the ability to get things done. It doesn’t have to be at the detriment of their employees, either. Effective leaders can get stuff done in a timely manner and ensure their employees are getting the work-life balance they need to stay energized.
What it looks like: A harried employee is always struggling to complete her tasks. Rather than taking her to task, her manager schedules a meeting where the two discuss what could be standing in the way. Time management issues? Overloaded schedule? The leader helps get the overdue tasks done (by enlisting the team as well) and then tackles the root of the issue for smoother sailing in the future.
Ability to adapt to changes and be innovative
There is one thing that organizations know, and that is CHANGE is the only constant. For companies to stay competitive, they need to be nimble and have leaders who are innovative. Furthermore, effective leaders need to be able to adapt their approach to meet the demands of an ever-changing environment. Leaders and organizations who refuse to adjust or adapt can be effective for some time, but they will inevitably become stale in their approach.
What it looks like: A leader creating quarterly reviews of people, processes, and platforms to ensure everything is still running according to best practices. By being open to changing anything that isn’t working and managing the change herself, she shows her employees how to adapt easily and quickly and incorporate change into their everyday lives.
There you have it. If a leader can manage to have at least three of these traits, chances are good that they will be an effective leader. If they have all five of these traits, then they're almost guaranteed to be a good leader. Fortunately for leaders everywhere, it is possible to develop these traits and improve your chances of becoming a great leader.
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