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Become a better leader by developing these 18 essential traits.

The post-COVID labor landscape is constantly shifting. Every day, roughly 10,000 people are reaching retirement age, helping to usher in a generational shift in the workforce. Meanwhile, remote and hybrid work have become the norms in many industries, transforming the role of the long-sacred office. And then there’s the question of how technology like AI will shake up different industries — both for better and for worse.

Despite all this change, one constant is the importance of effective leadership. In fact, with so many aspects of work now in flux, the difference a good leader can make may be greater than ever. With nearly three-quarters of Gen Zers now thinking about calling it quits, reevaluating how you lead your employees may even help keep your team — or organization — intact.

So let’s take a closer look at the importance of good leadership, as well as what goes into becoming a more effective boss.

Why businesses need good leadership

Good leadership is about more than just keeping workers happy or boosting team morale (although both of these are significant). It also plays a crucial role in increasing and maintaining high levels of productivity, shaping company culture, and helping the organization adapt and innovate for the future. Here are some specific ways effective leaders do this:

  • They define and bring to life a vision. Whether a company is just starting out or is still adapting after 100 years, strong leaders know how to create a vision and long-term goals that are both realistic and inspiring. Not only this, but they know how to lead by example, showing the rest of the organization how to live up to its ideals.
  • They build a healthy environment. Good leadership focuses not just on the company at large, but also on the individual employees. It means creating a place where everyone feels valued, included, and engaged. Under effective leadership, employees will feel like their contributions matter and their voice is important. They’ll feel motivated to take risks, try new things, and invest more effort in their work.
  • They make productivity a priority. Smart leaders understand that pushing employees to perform more without also providing support will only result in burnout. Instead, they know how to set up employees for success by establishing expectations, setting performance standards, and providing regular feedback. They help everyone do their jobs better by properly clarifying their roles and responsibilities.
  • They establish a growth mindset. Companies with effective leadership will give employees plenty of opportunities to learn and grow in their jobs. They’ll offer training, skills development, and maybe even mentorship. They’ll give employees a long-term outlook by helping them not only grow in their jobs, but also advance their larger careers.
  • They reduce conflicts and retain talent. Good leaders know how to put in place a framework to hold productive discussions, share constructive criticism, and reduce the chances of conflict. In this way, they understand that retaining the best employees means building a place where everyone feels supported, even when they’re challenged.
  • They help make better decisions. The best leaders help foster more effective and informed decision making throughout an organization by emphasizing the importance of considering multiple perspectives and valuing inclusivity. Their ability to make timely and well-thought-out decisions is pivotal for organizational success. 

While leaders still need talented workers and resilient infrastructures to help a company succeed, research shows that the trickle-down effects of good leadership are strong. A good manager not only improves the performance of their direct reports, but also of multiple layers of employees below them. Their efforts can be felt throughout a company, helping everyone better address customer needs and, as a result, improve the bottom line.

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18 ways to become a better leader

Although leadership is often described as a talent, there’s no reason it can’t be taught. All it takes is some awareness of the various skills and traits that make up a good leader. The following should provide you with a good general overview of how you can start leveling up your leadership game.

1. Build connections.

Effective leaders don’t just direct — they also connect. This can mean several things. At its most basic, it’s about making sure you have a productive relationship with each person on your team. You don’t need to be friends (this can be counterproductive), but you should have a rapport. 

Beyond this, it also means connecting employees to resources, encouraging interactions within your team, and promoting collaborative opportunities. You could do this many ways. For example, you could encourage team members to attend relevant networking events or facilitate team-building sessions within your own organization. You could even hold individual discussions with employees to better understand how you can support their career growth.

2. Give direct feedback.

Knowing how to give straightforward and honest feedback is a hallmark of good leadership. By not beating around the bush and instead simply speaking clearly to your report about their performance, you’re not only making it easier for them to understand how they can improve and succeed, but you’re also showing them respect.

It can be useful to do this within a larger performance assessment framework. On a regular basis, sit down with each employee to discuss what they’re doing well and what still needs development. Be as clear and constructive as you can be. For example, if the quality of their work isn’t meeting expectations, point this out and ask them what you can do to help them improve. You’ll get much better results, much faster, than if you instead try to spare their feelings.

3. Understand why you want to become a better leader.

Wanting to improve your leadership skills is admirable in and of itself, but the best leaders will have a reason for becoming a better leader. This will give you a goal to work toward and provide you with a consistent source of motivation. You’re not just trying to grow and become better. You’re trying to accomplish something specific.

These reasons could be almost anything. For instance, perhaps you want to improve the performance of your team or even your entire organization. Or maybe you’re interested in advancing your own career and gaining a promotion. You may even just want to see if you can successfully get your team past a project. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that keeps pushing you to improve.

Introverted leaders

4. Be empathetic.

While good leaders should focus on goals, they also know that the only way these goals get accomplished is through the hard work of the people they manage. And since people are human, that means knowing how to deal with their moods, their emotions, and their larger lives outside of work. It means knowing how to be empathetic.

Empathy may be one of the most important soft skills a leader can cultivate. It shows you care about your team members as people, not just workers. This will deepen your connection with them, helping to motivate them to work even harder for you. Try it out by practicing empathy in everyday situations. For example, employ active listening to better understand your employees, or give them an open invitation to share their concerns with you. And always show the same patience and compassion you’d want others to offer you.

5. Practice listening.

Did we just mention active listening? It’s worth calling out on its own. For those who aren’t familiar with it, active listening is a way of listening and interacting with someone in order to promote understanding. Think of it as listening on purpose. It not only helps ensure nothing gets missed, but also encourages the person talking to share more. This makes it a key strategy for leaders to understand and empathize with their employees.

It’s something you can try out today. Start by focusing on your physical gestures. Sit still and maintain eye contact to show that they have your full attention. If they stop talking, don’t rush to fill in the silence. Instead, give them space to finish what they’re saying without interruption. When they’re finished, restate what you heard to confirm you understand correctly. You may be surprised by how much these small efforts can improve your conversations.

6. Communicate clearly.

If there’s one thing all good leaders have in common, it’s strong communication skills. More specifically, it’s the ability to clearly articulate their expectations for their employees, give them any directions or instructions, and offer useful feedback. 

Knowing how to do this in the moment may take some practice, but you can help yourself out by setting up open communication channels for your team. Make it clear that your team can come to you with questions or comments anytime they like. Use active listening during conversations and, when it’s your turn to talk, try to keep your comments short and to the point. By avoiding unnecessary information, showing empathy, and opening your doors to employees, you can go a long way toward making yourself heard.

7. Always be learning.

Leaders should never be comfortable resting on their laurels. If the past few years have been any sort of evidence, the world is undergoing a constant rhythm of change. Just keeping up with these transformations and staying relevant requires a continual commitment to learning new technologies, understanding emerging trends, and adapting to new societal changes and ways of work.

As a leader, it’s your job to be at the forefront of all this. You can make continual education a priority by reading up on the latest news, taking relevant trainings and workshops, and attending industry events. Doing all this has the added benefit of setting an example for the rest of your team. This will help create a culture of continuous learning where everyone is encouraged to stay up to date on the latest advancements. The result should be a more creative, forward-thinking organization under your leadership.

8. Share your knowledge.

Just as important as taking in new knowledge is sharing and disseminating what you already know. You want your reports to see you as not only someone who can keep the team focused and aligned, but also as someone who they can turn to for useful advice and information as they need it. This will help instill confidence in you, as well as inspire your team.

And just like pursuing education opportunities for yourself will help promote a culture of continuous learning throughout your team, you can also make knowledge sharing a habit for everyone simply by doing it. Once established, this will go a long way toward eliminating harmful information silos and spreading institutional knowledge around. And that will help make your team more resilient and adaptable in the face of change — a clear sign of effective leadership.

9. Be grateful.

Gratitude is another essential soft skill good leaders should practice. Without it, even the most effective leaders may end up leaving their reports feeling alienated and distant. That’s because people want to be recognized for their work. Even just a small acknowledgement of their effort can help make a major difference to team morale and engagement.

But there’s a lot more you can do than simply saying “thanks” (although that’s a great place to begin). For example, you could consider putting down in writing what you value about an employee, then sharing it with them during their regular review. If they’re comfortable with it, you could also share it across the entire team, or even institute an “employee of the month” program to show your appreciation. The important part is making sure that everyone knows you notice and value their effort.

10. Keep an open mind.

Keeping an open mind is good for anyone, but it’s especially important for leaders. By guarding against entrenched thought processes and staying aware of any personal biases, you’ll be better equipped to manage your team more equitably, stay flexible in the face of change, and adopt new and potentially innovative ideas.

However, learning how to keep an open mind can be tricky. It involves a continuous process of self-awareness so that you can recognize when you may be closing yourself off, as well as why. Start by examining yourself to learn where you may have blind spots. Common culprits are any places you may lack knowledge or direct experience. Take note of these, then make an active effort to remain open and nonjudgmental whenever you find yourself resisting anything related to them. Don’t be discouraged if you mess up here or there. This will likely be a lifelong process.

11. Encourage creativity.

Although creativity isn’t something that can just be switched on, leaders should always be looking for new methods to encourage it. The most effective way to do this is by trying to challenge team members to come up with new ideas, while also giving them the safety and support to fail. You need to know how to make people comfortable with taking risks.

By helping your reports explore their more creative side, you’ll set yourself up to benefit from more original ideas. But you’ll also be providing your employees with a greater level of intellectual stimulation. Rather than requiring them to do the same sort of task over and over, this will push them to explore new territory. The challenge of this can be incredibly satisfying, especially if this encouragement doesn’t stop at the office door but continues beyond work, to diverse creative outlets elsewhere. 

12. Be passionate.

Good leaders inspire and drive their employees through a healthy dose of passion. This is almost a classical trait of the effective leader — consider the powerful speeches of Churchill or the intensity of Steve Jobs — but it’s important to note that the best leaders know how to align their enthusiasm within a well-defined standard of ethics. They let their passions carry them, but don’t push their employees too far. That way they earn their trust and respect.

You can demonstrate this by directing your passion and energy toward bringing out the best in your employees. Make a particular effort to collect your team’s ideas and suggestions, then apply this input toward building out projects and processes that reflect everyone’s efforts. Show you care as much about building up others as you do about building out your team’s success. That will be the most inspiring kind of passion of all.

why change initiatives fail

13. Encourage others to make contributions.

Bringing out the best in everyone means knowing how to encourage all types of people — whether introverted or extroverted, new to the job or experienced — to make valuable contributions. This way, no one will be left out of the dialogue simply due to their role or personality. Instead, by making an effort to include everyone, the workplace can become more equitable.

Good leaders tackle this challenge by taking advantage of a variety of strategies. For instance, they could augment their brainstorming sessions by including an asynchronous aspect that allows team members who may be more reluctant to speak up in a room to share their ideas. Alternatively, the simple act of celebrating someone’s contribution can be enough to encourage others to come forward with their own ideas. By staying on the lookout for constructive opportunities like this, you can help cultivate trust, turning your workplace into a space where everyone feels free to speak up.

14. Offer rewards.

As a leader, don’t neglect the value of a good reward. Although showing recognition should begin with some kind of spoken or written acknowledgment, a tangible reward can serve as an extra dose of positive reinforcement. It shows that you not only value the employee, but are willing to put your money where your mouth is.

These rewards can be anything. You could offer small ones like a free coffee at a local cafe or a lunch at a local sandwich shop just to show some quick appreciation for a job well done. If you want to recognize something more significant, you could offer paid time off or even a vacation. Try to be creative and thoughtful. The best rewards will help elevate morale and productivity across the company because they show how much you appreciate your employees.

15. Try new things.

One way good leaders become (and stay) good leaders is by always trying out new stuff. Because they keep an open mind, they are always looking for new strategies to bring their team together, new ways to motivate and inspire, and new processes to get them performing at their best. 

Of course, this enthusiasm shouldn’t be chaotic. A good leader should also do their research into any new tools, methodologies, or strategies they’re interested in. They should also consult closely with their reports to see what will work best for them. Carried out correctly, this impulse for innovation can help leaders set their teams and companies apart from their rivals by enabling them to embrace the best of the cutting edge.

16. Find a mentor.

A leader should never be their own island. Just because you’re the top person on your team doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out advice and direction from someone else. The best leaders know that there will always be someone who can shine a light on their shortcomings or help them carve out a path for growth. That’s why they so often lean on a mentor.

Try to seek out someone who not only has a list of skills and experiences you find impressive, but also who shares a similar set of values with you. This will ensure that the two of you will be able to have a productive and long-term dialogue. You should be able to learn not only from what they tell you, but from their own actions and decisions they’ve made. Like yourself as a leader, they should serve as an inspiration and model to aspire to. They should push you, through both word and deed, to become the best leader you can be.

17. Earn trust.

Trust is essential to every relationship, including leadership. Without a foundation of trust, employees would have no reason to follow your directions or even expend the effort of working alongside you. They need to know that the time they spend under your guidance will be time well spent.

Good leaders know that the only way to build this foundation is by earning it. You can start doing this by, first and foremost, showing each member on your team the respect and compassion they deserve. Follow through on your commitments, show up on time to your meetings, and practice empathy over discipline. If you mess up, show integrity by taking responsibility for your actions. And, as always, acknowledge everyone else’s good work and value to the team. 

18. Be self-aware.

In the most expansive sense, effective leaders know what they’re doing. This means they know what they can do well and what they still need to improve. They recognize what actions or results make them most happy, as well as the triggers that set them off. They are fully aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and blindspots because they know how to examine themselves.

Leaders who are self-aware will have the greatest capacity for improvement. They will know how to lean on what they’re good at and know when to reach out for help. They’ll be able to see when a situation is beyond their capabilities and take the necessary precautions to ensure success. In this way, they’ll exemplify how everyone on their team should act. They’ll be an emblem for representing yourself with authenticity, even when that means admitting you aren’t up for the challenge.

Enhancing your leadership skills in the workplace

Becoming a better leader is not something that will happen overnight. Instead, it will be a gradual process that you will have to practice continually. Because of this, it can be helpful to think of it not as a goal, but as a mindset. Like a good exercise regimen, improving your leadership skills is a habit you’ll have to set for yourself.

That said, you can start this process off on the right foot by doing a thorough evaluation of where you stand as a leader. Conduct a self-assessment, ask your reports for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses, then compare the two. This will give you some good insights into your skills as a leader, any opportunities for improvement, and areas you may not be a good judge of your own abilities.

Next, set some clear goals for yourself. While these should be aspirational enough to motivate you, they should also be attainable enough to remain realistic. Try to do this by tying them to either your team or organizational objectives. It can also be good to make them specific. This way, you have something to aim for as you start your leadership work.

From here, it’s up to you to forge your own path. This can be a good time to practice some self-awareness. Ask yourself whether you’re the type of person to cast a wide net and try everything from enrolling in leadership courses to diving into research to seeking out a mentor, or whether you’d be more likely to thrive with an incremental approach. Regardless, remember to stay consistent with your efforts and to keep asking for feedback along the way.

And, it’s worth repeating, be patient. Even if you feel like you aren’t making much progress, the very fact that you’re putting in the effort means you are becoming a better leader. Others will recognize this and appreciate you because of it. You may even find they already think better of your leadership skills.

David is a freelance writer and PI contributor. When he’s not writing, he’s probably thinking about food. He believes pretzels are superior to potato chips and you can’t convince him otherwise.

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