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Natalia Rossingol

11 Essential Leadership Skills & How to Develop Them

We've all worked with leaders who are good at what they do. But what leadership skills make the truly exceptional leaders stand out even among the best?

There are leaders, and there are great leaders. The question is, what is the difference?

Things that typically characterize a leader, like strong communication skills, the ability to solve problems, or effective time management, are a bare minimum – they are mandatory for any leader, but they’re not necessarily enough to make a great one.

But before we answer what makes the ordinary extraordinary, let's start with the definition of a leader. The most precise one, in our opinion, is that a leader is someone who people follow, and follow voluntarily.

This must be someone of unusual personality that unites qualities like kindness and strength, willpower and humanity. In other words, a person with a specific set of skills and values that makes them stand out from the crowd.

  1. Empathy
  2. Agility
  3. Resilience
  4. Decisiveness
  5. Listening
  6. Self-awareness
  7. Delegating
  8. Curiosity
  9. Integrity
  10. Courage
  11. Vision

1. Empathy

On our list, empathy is at the top – and for a good reason. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, support someone who needs it, and show real care is a vital component of any healthy relationship – and a relationship with your team is not an exception.

Brené Brown, the author of “Dare to Lead,” explains that being empathetic means being emotionally available:

Empathy isn’t about fixing, it’s the brave choice to be with someone in their darkness."

Here we can see an important implication, for leaders in particular: you don’t have to do someone else’s job. Your people need to learn how to figure things out by themselves, even when that comes with challenge or difficulty. Your job, however, is to empower them to move through the challenge - with support, and without judgement.

Empathetic leadership is about being human. People on your team may struggle with work assignments, have issues with colleagues, or fight invisible wars in private life, which eventually affects work. A good leader keeps their eyes and heart open, to notice these things and be there when needed.      

How to develop empathy as a leader

According to Brown, there are 5 skills by developing which you can become more empathetic:

  • To see the world as others see it, or perspective taking
  • To be non-judgmental
  • To understand another person’s feelings
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
  • Mindfulness (paying attention)

2. Agility

They say the only constant in life is change. Nowadays, in our fast-paced world, change is the norm. That’s why for a good leader, the ability to properly and timely react to change is a must.

To lead your team through change, you need to be adaptable and think fast - in other words, you need to be agile. You cannot just hope that situations will fix themselves.

Instead, a good leader is alert and monitors what’s going on both inside and outside the company. This helps to forecast change and prepare for it well ahead of time – on a tactical and strategical level.

In other words, monitoring helps a leader to respond to short-term, daily challenges, as well as the long-term ones which determine the future of the organization.    

Besides monitoring, agility also means learning. The market changes every day. Customers have new demands. Competitors find new solutions. More advanced equipment becomes available. If you don’t keep on top of these developments, you risk falling behind.

How to develop agility as a leader

  • Develop a change-positive mindset. Accept the fact change is inevitable, and help your team accept it, too.
  • Monitor change. Notice small changes, and react to them.
  • To adapt, make decisions quickly. 
  • Build a culture of learning in your team. New knowledge and skills keep people motivated and help them stay competitive. 

3. Resilience

When things are difficult and the world seems to be falling apart, it’s reassuring to have someone who still stays positive and doesn’t let you panic. This is what a resilient leader does – keeps the situation under control, encouraging their team to be resilient also: inspiring faith and the will keep going despite difficulty.

Resilience is about coping with stress, having a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, facing reality as it is, and having confidence in yourself. Resilient business leaders are candid – they always call things by their names, confronting the facts. Instead of looking for someone to blame, they promote a no blame culture and work hard to find collaborative solutions.

How to grow resilience as a leader

  • Learn to accept things as they are.
  • Remember your purpose, and continue moving to your goals.
  • Focus on what you can influence.

4. Decisiveness

Leadership is associated with decision-making power, so, naturally, leaders are expected to be decisive. This involves the ability to make well-informed and timely decisions by weighing up options.

A successful leader realizes that sometimes, there is no time to hesitate – if you don’t make a decision and take action, you risk losing what you’ve got. So such leaders don’t get stuck doing too much research: instead, they act, relying on the information they’ve got to hand, and intuition.

Decisive leaders are strong enough to make tough decisions when it’s necessary, like letting people go. While it might be emotionally difficult, they can separate work and personal relationships, making it clear that the decision has nothing to do with personal preferences. 

What’s important, decisive leaders commit to their path: their decisions are clear and final, which makes people respect them.  

How to increase decisiveness as a leader

  • Learn to collect information quickly – for example, talk to several people who know the subject well, instead of spending hours in meetings.
  • Separate personal emotions from work.
  • Try to not overthink your decisions once you made them.

5. Listening

People on your team have a lot to tell you – you just need to take a pause and listen to them. Very often, business leaders are not as immersed in work processes as team members, who may have better answers to many questions (for instance, about how to improve team collaboration, better satisfy customers’ needs, or organize operations.)

Displaying a genuine openness to hearing different perspectives makes people feel respected and appreciated. This, in turn, helps with employee engagement and relationship building.  

Besides, by listening to people, a leader develops a strong, trusting relationship in the team, which is very beneficial for the overall team's health. And trust is an important component of psychological safety – an environment where people are not afraid to speak up and contribute as much as they can.

How to improve listening skills as a leader

  • Make time to talk to your people, especially face-to-face.
  • To make sure you understand them right, ask questions and restate what has been said. Take their feedback seriously. 
  • Pay attention to body language.
  • Help more introverted people not be drowned out by extroverts. Let them publicly express their opinions.

6. Self-awareness

You cannot truly lead others if you have no control over yourself. And to develop self-control, a leader must develop self-awareness – the ability to see your own strengths and weaknesses, recognize your emotions, and understand how you affect those around you.

Our self-perception can be based on false assumptions, so it’s worth doing the work of reflecting and being honest with ourselves about who we really are (and, in this context, what we are like to work with). It may be difficult to do this alone - you may need to enlist the help of trusted friends, or a therapist.

And sometimes this work will be unpleasant, as you might have to confront traits or tendencies that you didn't know were there, or never saw as a problem. However, it’s like taking a pill – it might be bitter for a second, but after a while you’ll feel better for it.

How to develop self-awareness as a leader

  • Sit down and start thinking. Reflect on where you need to improve, what your strengths are, and what you can do about it. Consider things like your leadership and communication style, conflict resolution and listening skills, inclusivity and diversity on your team etc. 
  • Be open to feedback. Ask for a second opinion to make sure your conclusions are right.
  • Find a therapist and let them know that you want to work on your self-awareness.
  • Work on your emotional intelligence.

7. Delegating

For many people in leadership positions, it’s hard to “let go” – they have a very strong inner conviction that no one else can do things better than them. They may try to control and micromanage other people.

This has a negative impact on both sides involved: a person who is being micromanaged feels suffocated, while a leader, eventually, gets exhausted – both because it’s draining to closely monitor every step of others, and because the pile of work that needs to be done keeps growing. 

That's why an effective leader delegates. You really don’t have to do it all by yourself!

By letting go and delegating tasks to your team members, you both show them that you believe in them and give yourself more time to do things that actually require your attention or expertise. This, by the way, is an important feature of the democratic leadership style.     

How to learn to delegate as a leader

  • Get to know your people. Learn more about their skills and knowledge.
  • Identify growth opportunities for the people you lead, and arrange for them to take those opportunities, based on their skills. 

8. Curiosity

People who are curious seem to have some inner sparkle – they’re full of energy and always ready to explore. And what’s important, they help others ignite their sparkles. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

Curious leaders always keep learning. They look for opportunities and are open to new challenges. They experiment and let others experiment, too. They are aware they do not know everything, so they ask a lot of questions. Innovative leaders think out of the box and stay positive even when times are difficult – because they know opportunities are often disguised as problems.

How to grow curiosity as a leader

  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Look for non-traditional solutions. Use brainstorming sessions, or the 6 Thinking Hats method – particularly, “put on” the green hat, looking for creative, out-of-the box solutions.
  • Keep learning and develop critical thinking skills.

9. Integrity

Integrity refers to a set of values like honesty and fairness, as well as other ethical principles. Who wouldn’t want a fair leader who is always consistent in their words and actions? This is a leader you trust, a leader you can always rely on. You know their intentions are genuine, and they aren't hiding anything from you. 

Integrity helps create a strong ethical organizational culture – ethical behavior of a leader has a ripple effect on the rest of the team. In such a culture, conflicts are handled with fairness and transparency, and even unpopular decisions are accepted with respect – because a leader with integrity does what’s best for the team or the organization, and everyone knows that.  This is what servant leadership is about.     

How to affirm integrity as a leader

  • Build a culture of transparency, where all team members have access to information and understand what stands behind leadership’s decisions.
  • Openly share your thoughts.
  • Provide timely and honest communication.

10. Courage

Leaders lead, and that requires them to be courageous – people expect their leader to have strong willpower and be reliable.

As a leadership skill, courage means many things. It’s the willingness to take calculated risks, even when no one knows what the outcome might be. It’s the readiness to challenge the status quo, when you know most people on your team will not like the change. It’s the ability to stand up for what is right, even in the face of adversity.

Courageous leaders are not afraid of uncertainty. Or rather, they are afraid – but they still act, overcoming their fear. They know they can make a mistake, and still let themselves do something instead of just waiting.  

How to build courage as a leader

  • Embrace risk and failure. Without a risk, you will not grow. And failure is just an inevitable part of your leadership journey.
  • Be ready for discomfort.
  • Practice courage by making small steps.

11. Vision

Finally, true leaders are visionaries. They have strategic thinking skills, which means they can see a bigger picture and have a clear idea of where the team or organization is heading. The image in their head is vivid, and they know how to make it a reality. They set goals, make plans, and know what values and principles can lead them to their dream.

And they can effectively communicate that vision to their teams, motivating them and showing a clear path to their goals. Their faith and confidence inspire, and people gladly follow them. And this is what differs leaders from managers

How to articulate vision as a leader

  • Envision a future you want to achieve. Develop a purpose, set goals, and build plans.
  • Vividly describe the future you see to your team. Make them believe it’s possible.
  • Provide your team with a plan. 

Successful leaders are made, not born. You may sense that you have certain character strengths that stand you in good stead for leadership, but other traits that feel like a negative. But that’s okay.

Everyone leads a bit differently, and you don’t have to master leadership overnight. It takes a lot of effort and time. Commit to personal growth, and have patience with yourself, and you'll become the leader you want to be.

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