We’ve all heard the cliché that leaders are made not born, but is that really true? As is the case with most well-worn sayings, there is both accuracy and exaggeration involved. What are the top leadership skills to develop – for consulting and the 21st century economy more broadly?
Today, we look at the top three leadership skills to develop to be a top tier manager and three intrinsic leadership qualities that will enable you to become a truly inspirational manager. Let’s start with the intrinsic (AKA tougher) qualities to develop.
Top Three Intrinsic Leadership Skills
Without character, what will you stand on to lead?
“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” -Norman Schwarzkopf, US Army General
Character is developed through trial and challenges. It’s often said that you don’t actually know what you’re capable of until you’ve gone through real challenges. Making the right choices, even when it’s the harder choice, develops your character and strengthens your resolve and capabilities.
When it comes to leadership, your character matters to those you’re leading. Namely, character speaks to trust. If those that you’re leading don’t really trust your character, then your influence over them is minimal. John Maxwell, leadership author, boils down leadership to “…Influence, nothing more. Nothing less.” Some have risen to great heights with minimal character, but that will usually end in a massive (and often public) collapse. You would do well to develop your integrity and character; it will serve you in every area of life. Developing your character will allow you to lead from the strongest form of leadership- from who you are, rather than your position.
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Life, along with your career, are a marathon. Think about your favorite team captain or business leader. Without a doubt, they have had to withstand difficult times and persevere when most would have given up long ago. The leader of any team is the person who is first to rise and last to fall. Their example illustrates that even though the task is difficult, more can be accomplished.
You also need to ensure that your health is good in order to increase your stamina. It may not be fun to follow a diet and go to the gym, but there is a reason that most of the top businesspersons of today are not the cigar chomping, 40 oz. steak eating oil men of yesteryear. If you aspire to lead others, you must lead by example and that includes through making healthy life choices both inside and outside of the office.
Beyond factors of health, mental stamina is also required of top managers. This is frequently manifested in the form of exhibiting patience and being equally steadfast. A good leader doesn’t chase trends, unless proof of their viability has been provided. The key to mental stamina is remembering that all challenges are relative. A great manager can impart that fact to the team in even the most strenuous of circumstances.
What this is not: a call to burnout and 100hr work-weeks (although they may be sometimes required). Stamina is the ability to prioritize and execute on long-term strategy without giving up.
Intuition is tough to build, and even tougher to quantify. The only real teacher of intuition is experience, however, we’ve noticed that identifying the core drivers of your business and a focus on developing your EQ make up for a lack of intuition. Every manager will encounter an unfamiliar situation at some point and have to make important decisions based on only half of the story, and sometimes even less information than that. In those uncertain times, intuition and instinct are part of the decision-making process, so it’s important that leaders can read and relate to the people around them, and make decisions that focus on the core drivers of their business. Asking questions tied to your long term strategy is a great tactic to use when making such decisions.
In addition to allowing for good decisions in times of crisis or extreme stress, intuition can also prove a valuable warning for when things might not be going as they should. Great leaders trust their instincts at all times and aren’t afraid to explore if something doesn’t feel right, even if it flies in the face of the available evidence.
Now, intuition may seem like something you have, or you don’t. And yes, we have drawn a distinction in this article between intrinsic and developed leadership skills. But intuition can still be one of your top leadership skills to improve. How? The key is simply paying attention to different situations and thinking through what happened and why. As you gain experience over time, be observant, ask questions, and seek to understand cause and effect. While some elements of having excellent intuition may be “innate,” you can improve your intuition over time.
Top Three Leadership Skills To Develop
1. Communication Flexibility
Now, every one of these “best of” lists has communication on it. No matter if you’re trying to be the best leader, dreamer, schemer, or steam cleaner, communication is an absolutely fundamental skill. What separates good leaders from great ones is communication flexibility. The ability to make everyone you interact with comfortable by shifting your communication method to fit their personal style. This is hard!
In today’s communication environment, simply being able to speak confidently is not sufficient. Every great leader must constantly be expanding their communication flexibility. You must dedicate yourself to staying up to date on each of the various communications vehicles available to motivate your team. This includes both physical and digital channels. Furthermore, you must be flexible enough to communicate to different team members in different ways and via different channels. It’s all about getting folks on the same page and moving toward a common purpose. But remember, character plays into this. When you ask somebody to do something, if they don’t trust your intentions (character), you’ll never get their best from them.
2. Emotional Intelligence & Empathy
You’ve probably heard the saying that a good leader should be prepared to wear many hats, but the fact is it’s probably more important for a top-quality manager to have experienced many shoes. Emotional intelligence and empathy should almost certainly be on any list of top 5 leadership skills for managers. Anyone not including it on a top 10 executive leadership skills list would be committing a grave error.
To truly lead and motivate a team requires understanding at least part of the personal experience of every individual you lead. Know what motivates them, and how they feel validated. Building the skill of empathy enables a manager to lead by making a case for action that speaks to every team member.
So how does one build empathy? The best way is to listen and repress the urge to fill the air with empty words. Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t wrong when he advocated speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Encourage your team to feel safe in speaking their mind and sharing expertise. The strongest squad is bigger than the sum of its parts. An empathic leader can drive better results and for a much longer period than a tyrant can. (There’s character raising its head again!) Never forget how it felt to be part of the team rather than leading it. Always consider how a course of action will affect each team member before unilaterally pressing for a change.
3. Exhibit Expertise
Sometimes the most obvious skill is the most overlooked, but it should go without saying – know your business! Sure, some leaders are brought into a company as new blood to turn around a previously sinking ship. Trust goes beyond character; competence is key as well. This is probably the easiest thing to begin doing as a younger businessperson who has aspirations of becoming a top leader. Begin going above and beyond in learning your trade today! Understand what the top leadership skills to develop are, and go after them!
Most modern corporations have learning opportunities and leadership development for employees at every level, but they may not be well publicized. If you want to lead one day, take the initiative to seek them out. Instead of binge watching another season on Netflix, take a course on something related to your current role or learn a new skill to increase your well-roundedness. Volunteer at your church or local charity. Top managers begin their journeys by leading themselves to new unexplored heights, so start that journey today. No leader is ever too big for the classroom, so never stop learning to be the kind of leader that people can rely upon for many years to come!