The key leadership skills

Posted by: on May 16, 2013 | No Comments

There is an interesting debate taking place as to whether or not poor leaders can become good leaders.

My view is rather simple: in the same way as there are naturally good and poor athletes, physicians, engineers and politicians, there are also good and poor leaders.

I do, however, believe that everybody can improve but the scale of improvement will depend on many factors including the individual’s persistence, commitment and true willingness to do so.

I believe many of us have said on a number of occasions that we want to improve ourselves in certain areas; sometimes, after a few glasses of bubbly on New Year’s Eve, we even, promise ourselves that “next year I will do this or that better”. I also believe that many of us, a few weeks into January, have forgotten all about the promises made.

Interestingly, on the topic of poor leaders vs. good leaders and on self-improvement, there was an article published in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year.

The authors used 360 degree feedback data over 12 to 19 months to track what exactly the leaders who had made the most significant progress actually were doing.

The results were very interesting: practically all the executives in the study managed to improve on nine particular leadership skills.

Skill number one was communication effectiveness. This was actually the most common skill that the leaders improved. Communication is critical to leadership. Communicating timely, frequently and professionally is key to success for any leader. Communication skills (including presentation skills) can be greatly improved through training and/or coaching.

The leaders in the study also made an effort to share their knowledge and expertise more widely. Typical for good leaders is to share their knowledge more frequently and teaching people what they know how to do.

Good leaders also encourage others to do more and to be better. Some leaders believe that if they minimise challenges to their team and expect less of their people, subordinates will see them as better leaders. This is wrong! Fewer challenges is the opposite of what a work group or organisation needs. When leaders challenge their direct reports to do more and be better than they thought they could be, the leaders are actually perceived to be better themselves.

The leaders in the study also developed a broader perspective. Getting leaders to stop and look at the bigger picture can help them see potential problems sooner and focus more on strategic and less on tactical issues. This leads to constructive change and innovation.

They also recognised that they were role models and needed to set a good example. It frequently happens that leaders unintentionally (or unknowingly) ask others to do things they don’t do themselves. This never works. Good leaders must walk the talk.

They began to champion their team’s new ideas. Leaders who shift from discouraging new proposals to encouraging and supporting innovative ideas and thinking will witness a lot of positive change around them.

Another important skill is to learn to recognise when change is needed. Leaders who become more proactive (i.e. by doing a better job of spotting new trends, opportunities, and potential problems early) are better leaders.

The leaders in the study also managed to improve their ability to inspire and motivate others. All the above skills presented do create a more inspirational environment. But there are also two other benefits coming from inspiring and motivating others: first, they do a better job keeping people focused on the highest priority goals and objectives; secondly, they make a special effort to stay in touch with the concerns and problems of their teams. When a leader is the last to know that an employee is having difficulties, others interpret that as a lack of concern. Providing support and assistance to an employee in difficult circumstances not only helps that employee, but also reassures others they can expect to receive the same treatment.

Good leaders also begin to encourage cooperation rather than competition. When leaders look for ways to encourage cooperation and generate common goals, they become more successful.

All the skills described above need to be developed for a leader to truly become a good leader.

Even if, as I said in the beginning, I believe that there are leaders who are naturally good leaders, there are also leaders who become good leaders by practising hard and focusing on their leadership skills.

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Foto på Dag Andersson