Whether you’re trying to start your own business, manage a team of employees or just run an effective neighborhood meeting, you understand the challenges of leadership on a personal level. You’re expected to have the answers to every question, you’re responsible for inspiring and motivating people (no matter how unmotivated they started), and worst of all, there’s no one above you to turn to for advice or direction—it all has to come from you.
There’s no blueprint for how to become a successful leader, and there’s evidence on both sides of the argument for whether great leaders are born or made. You can’t expect to naturally be an effective leader, nor can you ever expect to become a perfect leader. But if you study the qualities of a leader from examples of the past and scientific evidence, you can steer your behavior, your habits and your outlook in a more favorable direction.
So let’s take a look—what does it take to become a great leader?
1. Hold firm convictions to inspire followers and radiate confidence.
Holding firm convictions means you’ll be almost stubborn in your adherence to your values, beliefs and vision for the future. That doesn’t mean you ignore people when they disagree with you (in fact, as you’ll see, flexibility is important), but it does mean you have significant integrity, and you’re likely to stay true to your values, no matter what happens.
Research shows a high correlation between uncertainty and stress; if your employees aren’t sure what you’re going to think about a new idea, or if they feel like you change your positions too frequently, they may not be able to focus on their jobs or be as productive as they could. They might also have less respect for you as a leader.
There’s a famous anecdote about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs that demonstrates his ruthless convictions. when introducing a prototype of the iPhone, a friend criticized the touch keyboard, stating that users would strongly prefer traditional keyboards on their phones. Jobs’s response was “they’ll get used to it.” He’d already made up his mind, and was sure this was the correct path forward.
How to get started
To get started with this one, think carefully about which values and visions matter most to you. Then, frame them in your mind as unbreakable.
2. Use emotional intelligence (EQ) to improve both client and employee relationships.
Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is your ability to understand both your own emotions and the emotions of others. It gives you more control over your own emotional states, meaning you’re less influenced by raw feelings and it allows you to handle interpersonal relationships with your employees with more empathy.
One study within a Fortune 400 insurance company found that individuals with high emotional intelligence received more merit increases, held higher company ranks and got better ratings from both peers and superiors. This is attributable to EQ’s many benefits. These employees have better control over their own emotions and behaviors, work better with other people and are able to quickly resolve conflicts before they get out of hand.
How to get started
Getting started may prove difficult here. While some people naturally have high emotional intelligence, others take years to fully develop it.
If you’re just getting started, spend time paying attention to what other people are feeling and ask yourself why they’re feeling it. Regular periods of introspection will also help.
3. Master the art of communication to operate more efficiently (and boost morale).
Communication unfolds in many ways during your tenure as a leader. You’ll be leading in-person meetings, holding phone calls with clients and sending emails regularly. You’ll also be a part of heavy conversations, whether it’s breaking bad news to a client or firing an employee. Learning to communicate effectively is crucial to your success.
Ask any leader what the most valuable skills for success are, and they’ll likely list communication skills among them. Billionaire and serial entrepreneur Richard Branson, for example, has called communication “the most important skill any leader can possess.”
Communication not only makes processes run smoother (thanks to efficient transmission of instructions and details), but also allows you to convey mood and urgency through your tone. Accordingly, it has objective and subjective impacts on your audience.
How to get started
Email is the easiest place to gain mastery here since you’ll have time to think through your sentences and use email productivity hacks to get even better.
Pay attention to your purpose, wording, and tone, and experiment until you find the right combination.
When speaking, try to speak slower and think through your sentences carefully. You’ll appear more confident and buy time to find exactly the right words for any situation.
4. Always favor action over inaction to preserve your team’s momentum.
Great leaders typically have the mentality that action is favorable to inaction. If you’re facing a problem, procrastinating is the worst thing you can do. Instead, commit to moving forward however you can, even if that means making a temporary “duct tape fix,” or even making a mistake.
U.S. President Harry S. Truman is quoted as once saying,
“Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.”
This is the man who dropped the atomic bomb—an action that’s been criticized for ending thousands of innocent lives, but also praised for possibly preventing even further casualties worldwide. It was a risky and heavy decision, but one that kept things moving forward.
How to get started
When you’re facing a problem or a decision point, think carefully about your options, and start leaning away from options that don’t require action (i.e., “let’s wait a month,” or “let’s keep things the way they are for a while.”)
5. Be diplomatic to encourage new ideas and thorough discussion.
As important as it is to stay true to your convictions, it’s a terrible idea to lead through dictatorship. Instead, be diplomatic and encourage your employees to bring their ideas to the table—even if they outright contradict your own. Open discussions and listen to every idea that comes across your desk.
Many companies have made it a general policy to encourage ideas from their employees from the ground up. Google, for example, for a period of many years, gave its employees 20 percent of their working hours to work on any kind of projects they wanted to.
And according to Dan Glaser of Marsh and McLennan Companies,
“We have found that innovative ideas bubble up when you tap into an element of dissent.”
The research here indicates that companies that not only allow, but encourage and take advantage of disagreement, stand to benefit greatly.
How to get started
You can encourage this behavior by giving every employee time to express their ideas, whether it’s in meetings or a private setting. When you disagree, don’t cut down the idea; make a case for why yours is stronger and thank the employee for voicing their opinion.
The “safer” it is to voice a dissenting opinion, the more your employees will be willing to do it. Some more tips to help you make your team feel safe here.
Check back next week for 10 Qualities of a Leader: Part Two!
Article by Anna Johansson, Lifehack
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst