Anyone Can Learn to Be a Better Leader
Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading. To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives. Heightening your capacity to lead others requires being able to see how you think and act, and how your behavior affects others. Leading well requires a continuous journey of personal development. Yet people in leadership roles often eschew the long and challenging work of deepening self-insight in favor of chasing after management “tools”— preferably the “quick ’n’ easy” kind, such as personality type assessments that reduce employees to a few simplistic behavioral tendencies. Tools can be handy aids to good leadership. But none of them can take the place of fearless introspection, feedback seeking, and committed efforts to behavioral change for greater effectiveness and increased positive impact on others.
When you’re an individual contributor, your ability to use your technical expertise to deliver results is paramount. Once you’ve advanced into a leadership role, however, the toolkit that you relied on to deliver individual results rarely equips you to succeed through others. Beware of falling into the logical trap of “if I can do this work well, I should be able to lead a team of people who do this work.” This would be true if leading others were akin to operating a more powerful version of the same machinery you operated previously. But it’s not; machinery doesn’t perform better or worse based on what it thinks about you and how you make it feel, while humans do.
Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading. To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives. Heightening your capacity to lead others requires being able to see how you think and act, and how your behavior affects others. Leading well requires a continuous journey of personal development. Yet people in leadership roles often eschew the long and challenging work of deepening self-insight in favor of chasing after management “tools”— preferably the “quick ’n’ easy” kind, such as personality type assessments that reduce employees to a few simplistic behavioral tendencies, or, for example, implicit bias workshops that are used as a band-aid solution for systemic discrimination, or stack ranking systems that purport to identify the best talent by requiring managers to compare employees to each other. Instead of being a short cut to effective leadership, this mechanistic approach is more often a dead end that misdirects leaders’ attention away from the linkage between their own behavior and employee outcomes.
Tools can be handy aids to good leadership. But none of them can take the place of fearless introspection, feedback seeking, and committed efforts to behavioral change for greater effectiveness and increased positive impact on others. In my work with the organization above, I helped leaders learn that their greatest leverage to improve the commitment and accountability of their employees lay not in tracking their goal completion, but in creating and sustaining a motivating interpersonal environment. While we did use tools such as frameworks and checklists, their function was to help leaders note the quality of their own and their employees’ experience of work and shift it in a more collaborative direction; they weren’t to be used as replacements for this essential work. Leaders learned to recognize how their assumptions shaped their behavior and learned to consciously adopt mindsets and behaviors that produced better leadership outcomes.
Instead of hoping in vain for a magic tool to come along to help you manage your team, think of creating practices to increase your leadership proficiency. This involves taking an idea or research finding and translating it into behaviors that you can repeat systematically to create the desired result. You can use the following steps to design a learning practice for any developmental challenge you’d like to take on:
Start with a problem you’d like to solve or a future result you’d like to achieve. What outcome would make a meaningful difference for you? As an example, let’s say that you’d like to see your team members become more proactive in identifying and solving problems.
Articulate why it’s important to you now. Getting clear on your purpose and motivation increases the creativity and persistence you apply to designing and sustaining your practice. Perhaps you care deeply about being a wise steward of your organization’s human resources and about bringing out the best in your team members. You believe that more fully harnessing each person’s creativity will benefit the company and your team members. You’ve been feeling overloaded and believe that recapturing some of the time you currently spend overseeing team members’ work will help you be more effective. You also want to reduce the frustration you feel at having to generate all the ideas and plans for your team.
What is true leadership at work?
You can probably think of great leaders, and not just in business: Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi all fit the bill. So what’s the difference between how to be a leader at work and in other situations? Being a leader at work involves a specific set of skills that anyone can develop with practice.
Employees often look out for themselves and potentially their immediate coworkers; they certainly don’t have the company’s values at heart. While this may not seem that important, you’d be surprised how rare it is to find an employee who can verbalize the goals and beliefs of the organization they work for. That’s why leaders are more than employees – they embody the vision of the company. A true leader has a deep understanding of the company’s mission and believes in its core values .
Leaders don’t get far if others won’t follow them. When an employee keeps the cultural mainstays of the company at the forefront of all they do, they are in a better position to influence others . This is often where leadership at work begins – not in an executive office, but out in the bullpen or in the field : making connections and creating goodwill that is based on a genuine interest in others.
– Emotional intelligence
This is the ability to understand others’ feelings and reciprocate in kind, while also controlling your own emotions. Emotional intelligence requires deep self-awareness, social awareness, empathy and humility – but it can be developed and practiced. In one study, 71 percent of managers valued emotional intelligence (EQ) more highly than intellectual intelligence (IQ), and experts agree that a high EQ correlates directly with being a leader at work.
How to be a leader at work
You don’t need to be an executive or a manager to learn how to become a leader at work . No matter what walk of life you come from or where you sit in the company, you can follow these steps to learn how to be a leader at work .
1. Focus on yourself
Being a leader at work begins on an individual level. After all, the only thing you can truly control in your life is you . Before asking for a promotion or searching for management opportunities, first look at yourself. Do you display the skills and traits necessary in a good leader? If not, are you willing to put the time and effort into developing them? Commit to CANI – constant and never-ending improvement – for both soft skills, like communication, and hard skills, like learning new tools.
2. Add value
When you’re thinking about what skills to work on, focus on what will add the most value to your organization. Does your company need someone with a certain certification or knowledge of a specific software? Would it be more helpful to work on your email writing skills or to become an amazing public speaker for client presentations? Exceed expectations, demonstrate your hunger and your potential, and you’ll automatically be noticed when it’s time for promotions.
3. Work on your emotional fitness
Extraordinary leaders bring certainty into uncertain environments. That doesn’t mean that you have all the answers, but you do have the inner conviction that you can find the answer and move forward. The key to emotional fitness is being ready for anything. When you bring creativity, humor and curiosity to stressful situations, others will naturally turn to you when things become difficult or chaotic.
4. Practice self-awareness
It isn’t just businesses themselves that have a brand identity . Each employee has their own “work brand” based on their strengths and weaknesses and the best ways they can contribute to the company. It’s essential to be aware of your work brand in order to develop your leadership at work . The best leaders are the most self-aware. They’re always asking questions about their performance, and they take feedback seriously and professionally. Talk to your manager or even your colleagues and start applying your strengths today.
5. Adopt a growth mindset
True leaders also use their self-awareness and insight to consistently challenge themselves to grow. You view criticism and setbacks not as catastrophic roadblocks, but as a way to improve yourself and your situation. You’re constantly honing your skills and developing new ones. This is called a growth mindset , and it’s high on the list of how to be a leader at work. When you are constantly striving to better yourself, you will be able to give and become more than you ever thought possible, defying the odds, setting a new standard and stepping up to create the future you want.
6. Support others
A true leader is a great facilitator. Do you encourage others to speak up? Do you publicly recognize them when they do an excellent job? You look for greatness in your colleagues and are pleased to listen to what they have to say rather than offering your opinion over and over again. If you disagree with them, you discuss it in a constructive way. You excel at building trust in the workplace and creating a rapport with others. Because a true leader understands that when people are rewarded for progress and honored consistently, their drive to become better increases as well.
7. Think strategically
Being a leader at work requires resourcefulness – in achieving your personal goals and your goals as a team. This doesn’t mean doing more with less. It means thinking strategically and always being goal-oriented. It means having a plan to get you to your goals and having the determination to enact it. For the team, it means recognizing the potential in everyone and knowing how to delegate to make the best use of your team’s strengths. Strategic thinking skills are a way to add the most value to your organization – the ultimate goal of leadership at work .
8. Be innovative
Thriving companies are innovative . It doesn’t matter if you work for a tech startup or a pizza restaurant – organizations that find a way to differentiate themselves with fresh ideas are the ones that will survive. If you’re wondering how to become a leader at work , look no further than your own imagination: Contributing creative ideas that push the envelope and improve your company’s bottom line is one of the best strategies.
#12. Remove Anti-Social Individuals (Or They’ll Spoil The Bunch)
And recognizing and defusing bad players might be the most important and most under-appreciated task of leadership.
A system or a group with a power-unaware leader is liable to be infiltrated and toppled by anti-social players who are going to use the group resources for their own gain only.
That means, they cooperate as long as the majority cooperates.
But when they see selfish individuals (free-riders) who take from the group more than they give, then they stop giving, too.
When that happens, the majority of the group stops adding value and you devolve back from a team to a collection of (selfish) individuals.
The good news of getting rid of selfish players enhances the team .
Remember when we talked about “competitive altruists”? Well, one of the tools of altruistic competition is the punishment of free-riders.
People who punish free-riders are seen as more trustworthy (picture below) while they also help the team coalesce around prosocial values.
Luckily, experiments show that the opposite is also true.
And as much as negative behavior starts vicious circles of cheating, taking, and selfishness, positive behavior of mutual support, altruism, and value-giving cascades into more of the same.
12.2. Nip It In The Bud: Dispatch Snakes Before They Grow Teeth
When these internal enemies are left free to operate, the team will split into two sub-teams: the loyalists, and the rebellious faction.
The first victim, of course, is the team’s morale, atmosphere, and effectiveness.
12.3. Lead The Way With Empathy! Leaders With Empathic Connection Are Good Leaders
#13. Steer the Ship: Stay The Course, Prevent Toxic Drifts
13.2. Prepare Your Succession Plan
Leader’s Succession: From Within or From Outside?
But if things are good and if you have done your job well, hiring from within will help strengthen your group.
From a social-psychological point of view, internal succession shows that members are valued and it tells the team that “one of us” is leading us.
When it comes to shared identity, a successor who is too different from the leader can lead to cultural drifts and potential disagreement about the organization’s identity (Balser, 2009).
If your group is doing well avoid that risk and choose leaders who are similar to yourself and to the culture.
One study into family-owned businesses shows that a formal succession plan did not correlate with work relationships.
However, having no idea about potential successors might lead to internal struggles.
Whole empires have faltered when an enlightened leader suddenly died with no obvious heir. Avoid that mistake: it’s usually best to have at least a few candidates at the ready.
In brief : if all is well, choose your successor from within, based on merit and based on the value he has added to the group.
To ensure continuity, pick a prototypical leader who represents the culture well.