How to become a leader – 12 Most important leadership skills ·
“What are the most important leadership skills and abilities?”
“How can I become a leader?”
“What leadership skills should I learn to become a leader or manager?”
“What leadership skills and qualities should a good leader have?”
I hear these questions quite often and here is my answer. This list might look a bit different than many others out there, as I aim to talk strictly about important leadership skills and leave out anything that I consider being, for example, business or management skills.
In this article I will introduce and explain the 12 most important leadership skills that you need to master at least on a basic level to become an effective leader. Once you get started with the basics and get your first chances to lead, you should still always keep developing these essential skills further so you can actually be a good -or even great- leader!
It is, however, essential to understand that learning these leadership skills alone won’t be enough to become a true leader. To truly start growing as a leader, you should to take more comprehensive approach to the leadership development, and along with learning all the essential leadership skills you should also focus on building solid personal foundations, character, mindset, management skills, business skills, and industry related professional skills. This is how you become a strong and competent leader. You will learn more about this comprehensive approach at the very end of this article.
Leadership skills are mostly “soft” skills
Pure leadership skills (separated from management skills and business skills) are tied closely to the soft skills, traits and also character and mindset of a leader. Many of these leadership skills are not clear, singular things that you can just study and then execute, and most of them are used in combination with several other skills and abilities and are tied to other essential leadership qualities as you will see below.
Most important leadership skills are:
1. Communication skills
The ability to get your message through is the foundation of leadership. Every other skill needed is depending on your skill on being able to convey messages to people on different levels and on different mediums. Ability to communicate is needed for every influencing action of a leader, from one-to-one discussions and mentoring, to sales pitches and team meetings. Different sets of communication skills are also needed for addressing high-level customers or bigger crowds by spoken or written word. Communication is also the key skill for being able to tell people about your vision as a leader and getting your team engaged with the vision and the work related to realising it.
Communication is not a monologue, but a two-way street. Effective communication requires the ability to listen and understand the people around you and subsequently convey your messages on a way that will get through to them, and in the end move people. Communication also goes much deeper than the words, and being able to understand people’s deeper feelings on an individual and general human level is essential for leaders.
Good communications skills often also set apart the potential new managers and leaders from the rest of the team in the early stages of their careers.
Leaders must be able to take ownership of everything that happens in their companies, the good and especially the bad. They are the initiators of the action, and in the end also the ones who see that the right things are getting done to support their vision and overall goals of the organisation. There is no limit for the responsibility of the leader regarding the organisation he leads, and this means that every employee and their every action is in the end under the ownership of the leader, and the leader is one who bears responsibility of all this towards the outside world. A good leader stands between his team and everyone else and is ready to take the punches, especially when the team falls short of expectations for one reason or another. It is in the end, leader’s responsibility to build and train a team that is capable of fulfilling all the expectations.
Leader’s responsibility is by no mean’s limited to external world, and taking ownership of your own emotions and especially how you react to them is absolutely essential for every leader. While controlling your emotions and staying collected under pressure might not be a clear skill, it is an ability that can be trained. It is also one of the most important leadership qualities required from a competent leader. In tough situations or crisis, leader’s presence and ability to stay calm is often the only thing keeping the team together working efficiently.
Leaders are also often under heavy pressure due to responsibility they bear for their people, business and the results required from them. They should be able to control their emotions and not to take their frustrations, fears or anger to their teams (unless it serves a clear purpose, and is done intentionally and while in control of one’s emotions). Leaders also get into conflicts every now and then as they pursue their vision and goals, and being able to control your emotions and work through the conflicts is very helpful. Leaders also must be able to handle certain amounts of uncertainty and tolerate risks, and all of this is also part of being in control of one’s emotions and staying collected.
Will and ability to take ownership and bear responsibility is an absolute must for everyone willing to step into leadership work and it is often among the first things that indicate employee’s potential to be a leader.
3. Influencing skills
Ability to influence people is closely related to the communication, but it is a leadership skill of its own, and it is probably the one that actually defines what leading is. Leading, in its purest form, is influencing people to move towards the direction that you want. For a business leader this direction is defined in your vision and goals. Your influencing skills can be used for motivating or inspiring your team members and getting them engaged to their work and to your organisation. It can be used to convince important customers, investors or other stakeholders to trust you and your business. Influencing is also a skill that can be used on different scales, from one-to-one discussions to speaking for larger crowds. It can be also used without direct contact, through your indirect messages, such as marketing, publications, company memos or videos.
The most potential new managers and leaders show this ability regardless their official position. Many of the best candidates become first leaders among their colleagues without any official title and only then get promoted to official leadership roles. Great leaders wield influence through trust and respect.
4. Seeing the Big Picture
Understanding the big picture of your business is absolutely essential skill for a leader. Your vision is tied to this big picture, as are your goals and priorities. The big picture gives your ability to understand the scale of things you are working with, and their inherent value for the company. Only when you see the big picture and understand how all its parts come together creating value for the company, you can set the right priorities for you own, and your organisation’s work.
Starting to understand the big picture and being able to work with it is often the first clear step a towards becoming a leader or manager that an individual contributor can take.
5. Ability to create
Creativity is definitely one corner stone of leadership qualities, and ability to create is how you put the creativity in concrete actions to create results. While it is not a pure leadership skill at itself, this is probably one of the main things that separates the great leaders from basic managers. Creativity alone doesn’t provide anything if the leader lacks the ability to execute the creative ideas and innovations, but when creativity is combined with execution great things ensue.
Good leaders are able to create visions and high-aiming goals for their businesses and people to work towards. No matter what level of an organisation you are leading, you should always aim to build your own vision for your part of the organisation and people you are leading. This vision should be a part of the overall vision of the company but adapted to match the everyday work of your people (unless you are in a position to actually set the vision for the whole company instead of just your own part of it).
Another part of the creativity is the problem-solving ability. Leaders solve problems on higher levels than regular employees, and their ability to solve problems can have a large scale impact on the whole company they are working in. Leaders’ problem-solving skills are not tied to just their own brainpower, but they encompass the ability to harness their whole organisation to solve the right, most impactful problems.
For new leaders and managers, starting to solve higher-level problems at your work is often the fastest way to take steps towards becoming a leader and gaining bigger responsibilities.
6. Decision-making skill
Decision-making is definitely one very important leadership skill. The leaders are faced with different level decisions every day, and they must be able to make the best possible decisions with the resources that they have available. Leaders’ decision-making is not an individual feat of skill and brainpower, but it includes the ability to delegate the research, analysis and discussions to all the necessary people in leader’s domain. Good leaders also know when they have to decide by themselves, and when they should include the other stakeholders into a decision, either for their opinion, or even for their vote. However, no matter what kind of group is supporting the leader in the decision-making process, the leader is the one who bears the responsibility for the decisions once it is done.
Decision-making skill is not purely a leadership skill, as the pre-requisites for making solid decisions require often other business- and management skills, such as data gathering and analysis. However, when all the necessary information is in your hands, making the right decision, on the right time, with the right people is definitely a leadership skill.
And for the potential leaders and managers, once you are able to make solid decisions you are well on your way to being a real leader.
7. Relationship skills
Most effective leadership is based on different levels of relationships that you cultivate with the people you lead. Without trusting and respectful relationship, the people will not willingly let you influence them, and thus they will not follow your lead. Only the most rudimentary levels of leadership rely on your positional power, meaning that people follow your commands only because they have to. The real, most effective leadership happens when people follow you willingly – not because they must, but because of what you do and what you are.
Besides the people in their own organisation, business leaders must also be able to build relationships with customers, business partners, investors, etc. This is an essential part of business and securing those important trusting relationships can make or break a company.
New leaders and manager’s need the right relationship to advance on their career. It is essential to understand the value of good relationships and work to build a supporting network among your colleagues, immediate management and also with upper management. Having excellent relationships with important customers is also a good way to advance quickly on a leadership career.
8. Collaboration & delegation skills
I enlist these two under the same umbrella, as they are both forms of collaboration.
Delegation is an essential skill for a leader, and it can be used for great effect: It will multiply the leader’s ability to get results done, and on the same time delegating will also empower the people working for the leader, and help them to create more value for the business and grow through the well chosen challenges. Delegating, when done well, is also a clear sign of trust and builds better relationships between the leader and team.
Collaboration in general is an absolutely necessity for the leader to master, and he should be able to collaborate with different stakeholders, and also instill beneficial collaboration between people both in his organisation and outside of it. Leaders bring the right people together in order to realise their vision and reach their goals.
9. Ability and will to improve people and business
Leader’s should be always looking for ways to improve everything around them, This is a leadership skill set that actually combines a couple of different skills and mindsets. These skills are integral tools for constantly moving towards leader’s vision for the business and people he is working with.
Coaching and mentoring are one of the keys for building great teams. According to the latest research, they play a significant role on keeping the employees engaged in their work through providing attention, feedback, and possibilities to learn and grow. According to Gallup (arguable the greatest workplace researcher in the world), the future of leaders is to be mentors and coaches for their people, instilling motivation and engagement and thus providing greater benefits for both, the employees and business.
The other part of leader’s continuous improvement skill set is the ability to improve the business the leader is leading. Leader’s vision should provide a direction where the business should be moving, and leader’s ability to move the business should provide the forward momentum.
This skill is also tied to positivity and giving hope: A leader who sees that everything can be improved never gets stuck on anything, but has a positive view on his and his company’s ability to take on challenges. “If we can’t do it today, we will get better and do it tomorrow.” The quote also shows that this is as much of a mindset (or attitude), as it is a skill.
I would also list ability to recognise potential in people and business situations to this skill, although it is often listed as a separate leadership skill as itself.
For new leaders and managers this is naturally first focused on developing their own skills and abilities. However, if you have a strong will and mindset to improve yourself, it will be infectious and you will soon start to improve everything around you.
10. Situational awareness & skill to adapt
This ability is also essential for being able to manage all the changing situations in everyday business. The things fail every now and then, regardless of your best efforts, and you have to regroup and rethink quickly to avert the looming crisis or grasp the new opportunity.
Situational awareness also means that a leader can detach from immediate action to look things from a further a way and understand the implications for the big picture. Some seemingly very urgent things might not be very important on a larger scale, and some not so urgent things might have a great impact for the company. Being able to recognise and analyse different situations and their criticality, scale and impact, and then act accordingly is a skill that the exceptional leaders have.
For new leaders and managers this is something to really focus on. When you demonstrate that you can easily cope with quickly changing situations and don’t get caught on the wrong levels of thinking and acting, you are on your way to becoming a good leader.
11. Integrity (ability to act consistently)
Integrity might not be a skill per se, but is an absolutely important leadership quality and and an essential part of leader’s authenticity, trustworthiness, and consistency. When you have a clear set of healthy personal and business principles and you consistently act accordingly, the people around you can trust you, your decisions and judgement. When people know what your values and priorities are, and they know what to expect in different situations, they can work with confidence and trust that you will keep a steady course for the business and every day work. They will also know that your priorities, habits, operating model or requirements don’t change daily, and so they don’t have to do any guess work on how you will act and react on different days.
Integrity is also a great source of confidence for the leader himself. You don’t get easily confused, derailed or scared, when you know your values and principles, and can trust them to guide your decisions and actions.
Young leaders and managers are often facing the inner battle of trying to please their bosses and teams, while same time trying to do things in a way that feels right for them. It is essential that you figure out what your own values and principles are, and then act according to them in every situation. This will give you confidence and consistency in all your actions as you can trust your inner compass to show you the right direction. Becoming a great leader is also becoming to understand yourself.
12. Ability to lead (summary of all leadership skills)
All the leadership skills and abilities listed above, in the end, form an ability to lead. This is the end product of all the important leadership skills listed above, and thus, it is the most important leadership skill (or skill set). To make it simple, to be a good leader you must know how to lead and then actually be able do it every single day you step in to the office (or lead from the home office).
Good leaders lead with all their actions and skills and they constantly show high standards, and thus give an example for everyone else how to act and work. They get people engaged in their work, to their business, and in their vision with their ability to lead. However, the great leaders don’t rely only on leadership skills to get their job done. Being a complete and strong leader goes much deeper and wider, encompassing leaders personality, traits, characteristics, and mindset. There are also several other skill sets that are required from a well-rounded business leader. You can check the whole big picture of what good leaders are made of in my previous article, “What are good leaders made of?”
Note about other important skills of the leader: Business skills, management skills, industry related skills etc.: I have deliberately left out all the skills that could be categorised under the management skills (planning, execution, organising etc.), business skills (strategy, negotiations, high-level business transactions, such as acquisitions, mergers etc.) and industry related basic working skills (for example programming languages for developers, etc.). I also left out clear, but essential leadership characteristics and traits, such as grit (discipline), charisma, courage, positivity etc. However, to be a good leader, you will also need to build up all these on top of your leadership skills.
Learning these important leadership skills or building leadership traits and qualities is not enough to become a great leader
Remember that being a good leader is much more than knowing a few leadership skills or having a couple of essential leadership qualities. The whole foundation of your leadership is built upon your character and underlying traits, mindsets and supporting skills. If those aren’t in order, learning a few leadership skills or possessing a couple of desired leadership traits won’t help you to become a good leader or take you too far on your leadership career. If the foundations of your leadership are not solid you have a risk of feeling -and also coming of- like someone faking to be a real leader. Have a look at the infographic below (and have a look at the this article: Essential Leadership Skills: What are good leaders made of?) to understand the whole big picture of comprehensive leadership development and how deep the foundations of your leadership truly are.
Most important leadership skills are:
- Communication skills
- Influencing skills
- Seeing the Big Picture
- Ability to create
- Decision-making skill
- Relationship skills
- Collaboration and delegating skills
- Ability to improve people and business
- Situational awareness & skill to adapt
- Integrity (ability to act consistently)
- Ability to lead
And remember, leadership is much more than just the leadership skills and becoming a great leader is a personal journey to self-discovery and personal development!
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Business and company understanding: The big picture
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