The question of what makes a good leader—in other words, what are leadership skills—is widely debated. It is clear that the ability to lead effectively relies on a number of key skills, but also that different leaders have very different characteristics and styles.
There is, in fact, no one right way to lead in all circumstances, and one of the main characteristics of good leaders is their flexibility and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Leadership skills are highly sought after by employers as they involve dealing with people in such a way as to motivate, enthuse and build respect.
Whether or not leadership itself can be taught, there is no question that there are a number of core skills that most good leaders have. These skills can be learnt like any others.
Skills Good Leaders Need
There are a number of broad skill areas that are particularly important for leaders. These include strategic thinking, planning and delivery, people management, change management, communication, and persuasion and influencing.
1. Strategic Thinking Skills
Perhaps the most important skill a leader needs—and what really distinguishes leaders from managers—is to be able to think strategically. This means, in simple terms, having an idea or vision of where you want to be and working to achieve that.
The best strategic thinkers see the big picture, and are not distracted by side issues or minor details. All their decisions are likely to be broadly based on their answer to the question ‘does this take me closer to where I want to be?’
Of course as well as being able to create a compelling vision, they must also be able to communicate it effectively to their followers, which is partly why communication skills are also vital to leaders.
Creating a vision is not simply a matter of having an idea. Good strategic thinking must be based on evidence, and that means being able to gather and analyse information from a wide range of sources. This is not purely about numbers, but also about knowing and understanding your market and your customers, and then—and this is crucial—using that information to support your strategic decisions.
2. Planning and Delivery Skills
While it is important to be personally organised and motivated as a leader—and see our pages on Time Management and Self-Motivation for more about these areas—it is perhaps even more important to be able to plan and deliver for the organisation.
These areas are key management skills, but the best leaders will also be able to turn their hand to these. The best vision in the world is no good without the plan to turn it into reality. Alongside strategic thinking, therefore, go organising and action planning, both essential for delivery of your vision and strategy. Project management and project planning are also helpful skills for both managers and leaders. Good risk management is also important to help you avoid things going wrong, and manage when they do. Good leaders also often have very strong facilitation skills, to manage groups effectively.
Leaders also need to be able to make good decisions in support of their strategy delivery, and solve problems. With a positive attitude, problems can become opportunities and learning experiences, and a leader can gain much information from a problem addressed.
3. People Management Skills
Without followers, there are no leaders. Leaders therefore need skills in working with others on a one-to-one and group basis, and a range of tools in their armoury to deal with a wide range of situations. Many of these skills are also vital for managers, and you can find out more about these in our page on Management Skills.
In particular, leaders are expected to motivate and encourage their followers, both directly (see our page on Motivating others) and by Creating a Motivational Environment.
One of the first skills that new leaders need to master is how to delegate. This is a difficult skill for many people but, done well, delegation can give team members responsibility and a taste of leadership themselves, and help them to remain motivated. See our page on Delegation Skills for more.
There are further challenges to delegating work within a team, including balancing workloads, and ensuring that everyone is given opportunities to help them develop. See our page on Overseeing Work for more.
Leaders and managers both need to understand how to build and manage a team. They need to know how to recruit effectively, and bring people ‘on board’ through induction processes. They also need to understand the importance of performance management, both on a regular basis, and to manage poor performance.
4. Change Management and Innovation Skills
Change management may seem like an odd companion to people management and communication, but leadership is often particularly important at times of change.
A leader needs to understand change management in order to lead an organisation through the process. For example, change management requires the creation and communication of a compelling vision. It also requires the change to be driven forward firmly, and leadership to make it ‘stick’ if the organisation is not to revert within a very short period.
5. Communication Skills
While communication skills are important for everyone, leaders and managers perhaps need them even more. These skills are general interpersonal skills, not specific to leadership, but successful leaders tend to show high levels of skill when communicating.
Good leaders tend to be extremely good listeners, able to listen actively and elicit information by good questioning. They are also likely to show high levels of assertiveness, which enables them to make their point without aggression, but firmly. They know how to build rapport quickly and effectively, to develop good, strong relationships with others, whether peers or subordinates. These skills come together to help to build charisma, that quality of ‘brightness’ which makes people want to follow a leader.
Without followers, there are no leaders. Leaders therefore need skills in working with others on a one-to-one and group basis, and a range of tools in their armoury to deal with a wide range of situations.
Leaders also need to know how to give others their views on personal performance in a way that will be constructive rather than destructive, and also hear others’ opinions of them. See our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback for more.
They are usually very good at effective speaking, equally skilled at getting their point across in a formal presentation or Board meeting, or in an informal meeting or casual corridor conversation. They have also honed their ability to communicate in difficult situations, usually by practice over time.
6. Persuasion and Influencing Skills
Finally, one particular area of communicating that is especially important for leaders is being able to persuade and influence others. Good leaders use a range of tools for this. For more, see our pages on Persuasion and Influencing, and Developing Persuasion Skills.
Leaders also need tools to help them understand the way that others behave, and create positive interactions. As a first step, it may be helpful to understand more about emotional intelligence—another vital quality for leaders to possess—but there are a number of other tools that may also be useful, including Transactional Analysis, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicators.
Many people consider leadership to be an essentially work-based characteristic. However, leadership roles are all around us and not just in work environments.
Ideally, leaders become leaders because they have credibility, and because people want to follow them. Using this definition, it becomes clear that leadership skills can be applied to any situation where you are required to take the lead, professionally, socially, and at home in family settings. Examples of situations where leadership might be called for, but which you might not immediately associate with that, include:
Planning and organising a big family get-together, for example, to celebrate a wedding anniversary or important birthday;
Responding to an illness or death in the family, and taking steps to organise care or make other arrangements; and
Making decisions about moving house, or children’s schooling.
In other words, leaders are not always appointed, and leadership skills may be needed in many circumstances. With apologies to Shakespeare, we might say that “some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them”.
But what exactly is a leader?
A leader can be defined fairly simply as ‘a person who leads or commands a group, organisation or country’.
This definition is broad, and could include both formal and informal roles—that is, both appointed leaders and those who emerge spontaneously in response to events.
In recent years, considerable evidence has emerged that the strongest organisations and groups tend to permit and actively encourage each member of the group or organisation to take the lead at the appropriate point. Organisations and families with particularly controlling leaders, by contrast, tend to be fairly dysfunctional.
Leadership, therefore, is in practice fairly fluid: leaders are made by circumstances. The crucial issue is that people are prepared to follow them at the right moment.
People also struggle with the concept of how being a leader is different from being a manager. You may have heard the idea that ‘leaders do the right thing, and managers do things right’. This is a fairly delicate distinction, and many leaders are also managers (and vice versa). Perhaps the key difference is that leaders are expected to create and communicate a compelling vision, often associated with change. Managers, on the other hand, are perhaps more often associated with maintaining the status quo.
Many people wonder if leadership can really be taught. People with vested interests (academics and those offering leadership training or literature of some sort) are convinced that it can. Many successful leaders, however, have never had any formal training. For them leadership is a state of mind, and it is their personalities and traits that make them successful leaders.
There is, clearly, a balance to be struck between these two positions. There is no question that some people are intrinsically more drawn towards leadership roles than others. However, it would be nonsense to suggest—although this has been mooted in the past—that only people with certain physical or personal traits could lead. For example, it has clearly been proven that being male, or being tall, does not of itself make someone a better leader, although many leaders are both male and tall.
It seems most likely that leadership requires certain skills. Some people will acquire these more easily than others. You can of course learn about effective leadership skills and practices but being able to implement them yourself may require an altogether different set of skills and attitudes. The question “Can leadership be taught?” has no simple answer and we do not want to argue for one side or the other, but rather keep an open mind on the subject and provide information about the skills good leaders need.
One of the most important aspects of leadership is that not every leader is the same. Of course we have all heard jokes about ‘mushroom’ leadership (keep them in the dark and feed them manure) and ‘seagulls’ (swoop in, squawk, and drop unpleasant things on people) but, joking aside, there are many different styles of leadership.
Different leadership styles are appropriate for different people and different circumstances, and the best leaders learn to use a wide variety of styles.
There are many different models of leadership style, but perhaps one of the best-known is Daniel Goleman’s Six Leadership Styles. This is almost certainly one of the models that is most strongly-rooted in research, which may explain some of its popularity.
Coercive, or commanding – ‘do as I say’
Pace-setting – ‘do as I do, right now’
Authoritative – ‘come with me’
Affiliative – ‘people come first’
Democratic – ‘what do you think?’
Coaching – ‘try it and see’
Entrepreneurship, Self- Employment and Freelancing
Entrepreneurship is often linked to change management and, likewise, requires leadership skills. The skills required for setting up your own business, however, are not exactly the same as for leading a large organisation.
Freelancing is becoming a very significant part of developed economies. In the UK there are over 2 million freelancers who generate a combined £109 billion a year. (According to The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed).
In the US as many as 55 million people work as freelancers (35% of the working population) contributing $1.4 trillion to the economy. It is predicted that freelancers will soon become the workforce majority. India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand also have large self-employed and freelance economies.
Do You Need Certain Strengths to be a Good Leader? What Sort of Leader are You?
When you think about what it means to be considered a good leader, there is no doubt quite a few aspects come to mind. Not everybody is cut out to be a leader, and it takes someone with a certain set of qualities to be able to maintain such a position. However, what exactly are the skills that are deemed necessary to be a good leader?
More often than not, people will name the same merits when asked about good leadership skills. These usually include the likes of brutal honesty, effective delegating skills, commitment to the job, creativity, a positive attitude and, perhaps most importantly, the self-belief that you have what it takes. These are, without a doubt, essential when it comes to good management.
But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, more precise, qualities that are necessary for someone who hopes to become a good leader. When it comes to what makes a successful leader, several different aspects need to be taken into account and they will all contribute towards ensuring that the person becomes someone who can lead efficiently.
The Specific Strengths of a Good Leader
What sort of things do you think about when trying to visualise a good leader? Well, aside from the traits previously mentioned, there are quite a few that will go a long way in defining somebody who could take charge. These are the sort of things that people really need to think about if they are hoping to rise through the ranks and end up on top.
This one is very much a necessity when it comes to leadership because those in employment need to understand what the task is that you are giving them. You need to be clear on the goals you set as their performance will be reflected back to you, good or bad. In order to do this, you should always speak clearly when talking to someone, or else make sure that electronic messages are not vague.
Since a leader is someone who needs to regularly meet with strangers in order to discuss business, as well talk to employees regarding tasks and their work performance, it should come as no surprise that social skills are crucial and something at which they should be adept. You don’t need to be a social person in general, just in the situations that warrant it.
Good leaders have to be able to speak confidently about their product and business, that’s a given. But it’s also important that they are skilled at listening to others.
Whether it’s with other company leaders or their own workers, a good leader will always be able to listen to any problems or suggestions that other people might have.
A leader needs to lead a team to success, so it’s important that not only do they have the ability to organise an effective team, but that they can work as part of one themselves.
That’s not to say that they shouldn’t still be an authoritative voice on matters, because they should. It just means that they need to be able to take an active role in what is going on in the business. Making sure your employees are thoroughly assessed is another goal you may want to reach in this regard.
It should be a given that a leader should be someone who is determined. After all, this isn’t a person who wants to stay just an employee. They want to get to the top of their game and end up being able to run a business. This will inevitably lead to a lot of setbacks, but a truly determined person won’t let this stop them and will push through them to ultimately come out the other end as a leader.
Similar to the point about determination, this is another aspect that shouldn’t come as a shock. Someone who is willing to push through drawbacks is no doubt someone with a lot of confidence in their abilities. It’s essential that you can show your confidence off proudly so that potential business partners and associates feel as though they can trust your judgement.
No leader can exist without followers. In other words, by definition, a leader needs followers in order to lead. This means that skills in leading and managing people are absolutely crucial for effective leaders.
This section examines some of those skills, explaining the art of successful delegation, how to create a motivational environment and motivate others, and how to facilitate processes.
01 – Delegating Work
Being able to pass work to others, and achieve through them, is crucial to success as a leader. No leader can do everything themselves. Anyone who tries to do so will both struggle, and also find that they lose their team in very short order.
02 – Motivating Others
Everyone is motivated. The key to leadership is to persuade others to want what you want. Creating a Motivational Environment will also help to improve motivation. There are three important elements: showing how much you appreciate others, helping them to see the big picture, and encouraging them to improve and develop their skills.
03 – Facilitation Skills
Facilitation skills are useful far beyond supporting away-days and events. They are also useful for supporting any and all processes, including change management, project management and team building. It will immediately become clear that these skills may well be crucial for leaders. The heart of process facilitation is helping those involved to identify and then achieve their aims.
04 – Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Entrepreneurs are a very special breed of leaders. Far from having to lead and motivate others within an established organisation, they go out on a limb, often against the advice of others, and create something new. In a very particular way, they are leaders: starting a new movement, often over and over again.
While all entrepreneurs are slightly different, they do share certain traits and skills. For example, they love what they do, and are able to articulate it very clearly in a compelling vision. One key skill of entrepreneurs is being able to innovate: come up with good ideas, and then deliver them in such a way that they improve the business.
A Leader’s Job is to Lead. Without followers, a leader is nothing. Even entrepreneurs need followers—those who are persuaded about their idea, and join them—even if they start alone. It follows, therefore, that managing and motivating people are key leadership skills. Without being able to take others with them, leaders will fail to achieve.