Are you a born leader, filled with innate confidence, with an artful ability to rally the troops while also exhibiting a beautifully strategic mind that makes the right decisions for long-term success, even under pressure?
Surprise! Few of us are that good. Few, if any, of us are born leaders.
True, there may be some people who are constitutionally unable to take the reins and lead a group of people and lead a project. And that’s okay. Imagine a world of only leaders. Ugh. Nothing would get done. You need to have people on every rung of the ladder to get anywhere.
Honestly, even a person who exhibits leadership qualities from the get-go can always learn more. Pretty much any leader has had to learn to develop those skills. So let’s look at what those skills are so we can all improve together.
The 6 Traits Every Leader Must Have
Think of leadership as a process. Some people are more along with that process than others, but there’s no destination. It doesn’t terminate. If the process is ongoing, then anyone can benefit from working towards becoming a better leader, even people who aren’t leaders or have any intention to lead.
The skill set of a leader is applicable over any discipline. A team member can be a good leader in they can help inspire on a ground level, almost like a leadership surrogate. So, even if you’re not a leader, learning to become better at in a leadership role can be a benefit to whatever your part is in production.
That said, we’re here to talk about making leaders, better leaders, and there are a number of factors to consider that make up great leadership. Leadership isn’t magic. It can be studied to determined what traits great leaders share. Then you can work on sharpening those skills.
A leader is someone who gets someone else to do something. That’s a basic component of leadership. It may seem like a simplification, but it’s one of the elements that are foundational to leadership. So, you need to have a vision and be able to inspire those around you to share that vision and work to achieve it.
Can you teach inspiration? Yes and no. Again, there are people who have charisma and we have a tendency to follow them, often without really understanding or even agreeing with their vision. What you can do, if you’re not that naturally magnetic, is offer a logical and well-thought-out plan that includes your team’s skills and gives them a sense of being part of a bigger picture.
People don’t want to be lied to. They don’t like to be kept in the dark or out of the loop. A leader is going to engage them with transparency that builds trust. Once that’s established, there is little your team won’t do. They’ll follow you anywhere.
Trust is a hard thing to build and a harder thing to rebuild once it’s been broken. You may feel that secrecy is important. There is information that you as a leader are privy to that is not appropriate for public consumption. That’s true. But being transparent, even about what you can’t be transparent about, is going to go a long way. You don’t have to give details, but don’t deny the team’s curiosity.
Be open to your team. Allow them to ask you questions, any question. Have them feel that you’re there for them, even if there’s information that is private and cannot be shared. You’ll be surprised how understanding they can be if treated respectfully.
The soft skills are crucial, but a leader has to be practical, too. Problems will arise and it’s your job to address them quickly and set into motion actions that will resolve them in your favor. That takes analysis, being able to grasp often complex situations and developing a strategy to unravel them and put the project back on track.
Again, there are minds that may be hard-wired to think analytically. Maybe you’re more of a people-person, certainly a key factor to good leadership, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. There’s a strange tendency among many people to believe they’re born a certain way and that’s it. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s change. You can change, if you want to.
Everything you do as a leader boils down to communications. It’s the glue that holds every other aspect of leadership together. You lead through communications, but communications can mean many things. It’s the way you speak to the group or one-on-one. It’s how clearly you articulate your ideas. It’s reporting to your superiors. And it takes a different approach depending on the context.
Even if you’re a good communicator there are likely modes of communication that you don’t excel in. Thankfully, there are lots of experts out there who have devoted their life to studying communications and what makes a good communicator. Read the books or seek out a mentor. Remember, like everything, it’s a process. You have to start somewhere and there’s always more to learn.
Finally, something that you’re not born with. You have to learn to become expert in the processes and methodologies of your field and… leadership. There are many different approaches, of course, ranging from the more traditional and heretical model to a flatter, collaborative approach. You will need to understand the culture at the organization to see which is the best fit, but that doesn’t mean you can just intuitively wing it.
You probably got to a position of leadership due to your expertise in one area, but now you have to take on more knowledge. You don’t necessarily have to know everything—that’s impossible—however you must surround yourself with people who do understand every aspect of the project you’re working on. Be a sponge and take it all in, it’s the only way you’ll be able to lead and make the tough decisions necessary to successfully complete your work.
Just as you can’t be an expert in all things, you can’t allow the weight of the entire project to rest on your shoulders. You must delegate, not micromanage. Sharing responsibility not only lightens your load and frees up your time to pay attention to the overall picture, it allows your team to take on responsibility of their own, which gives them buy-in.
But even more than delegate, you have to prepare your team to take on these new responsibilities, and that means developing new skills for them and investing in training and other technical education. This is something you must always be aware of. Your team is only as good as you enable them to be, and if you invest in them, they will give you more than a return on that investment. You’ll have a successful project, on time and under budget, as well as a loyal team that stays with you through think and thin. That’s something we can all learn from.
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