Ineffective leadership is easy to notice. Employees become withdrawn and lack motivation. Conflicts are common. Productivity may even be at a standstill. In contrast, effective leadership isn’t something that always draws attention to itself. In fact, if the person in charge is good at their job, you may not even notice. Work will run smoothly. Tasks will get checked off. And it will be hard to imagine anything different.
This is the power of successful leadership – but also why it can sometimes be difficult to properly characterize. What is a good leader actually doing that makes them so effective? Although good leadership is certainly a talent, it can still be taught. Like most talents, it starts by learning which skill to focus on, then spending time developing them.
Let’s look at what goes into good leadership, then break down some best practices of management and leadership for success.
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What makes a great leader?
There is no one trait that defines a great leader. Rather, effective leadership can best be described as a combination of a range of qualities, customized to each individual and situation. Some leaders may excel through their easy charm and charisma, while others may rely on a heightened sense of organization.
But while there’s no one recipe for success, the best leaders tend to be:
- Communicative: Good leaders know how to communicate clearly and effectively to their team. This can mean sharing ideas and strategies, ensuring alignment, or providing feedback. Importantly, it also means actively listening to others so that you know what they need to hear.
- Emotionally intelligent: The ability to empathize with your team members is an essential quality of good leadership. You must be able to understand and share their feelings, recognize when they are upset or frustrated, and connect with them on an emotional level in order to gain their trust.
- Inspirational: The best leaders don’t pressure you to be more productive, they motivate you. They do this by setting a positive example, encouraging creativity and innovation, and fostering a sense of purpose and enthusiasm throughout their team.
- Adaptable: Change will be an inevitable aspect of any leader’s job. The most successful will know how to stay flexible in the face of it. They’ll be able to quickly respond to new information, adjust their strategies, and keep work moving forward.
- Decisive: You’ll have a lot of choices to make as a leader. In order to remain successful, you’ll have to be able to quickly take measure of the situation, analyze new information, weigh out your options, and take decisive action.
- Visionary: Responding to short-term issues is just one part of a leader’s responsibilities. You’ll also need to have a clear vision for the long-term. You should know what you want to achieve, how to set ambitious but realistic goals, and how to communicate this vision to the rest of the team.
- Equitable: Maintaining a sense of fairness throughout your team or organization is a crucial part of creating camaraderie. You can do this by putting in place a framework for resolving conflicts and ensuring an inclusive culture, as well as by leading through your own example.
- Curious: Perhaps most importantly, good leaders should never be satisfied with how much they know. They are continuously learning, not only about their industry, but about ways they can better serve their team and individual employees.
6 practices for effective leadership
Knowing the traits that make up good leadership is only the first step. Now it’s time to put them into practice. Here are some actionable strategies you can use to start leveling up your leadership game.
1. Have trust in those around you.
It could be said that leadership begins and ends with trust. If your team doesn’t have any trust in you or your abilities, then you won’t be able to lead them. Likewise, if you don’t trust them to fulfill their responsibilities, then it won’t be possible for you to lead them in any meaningful way.
But while there are plenty of ways to build your team’s trust in you, how can you learn to trust your own team members? You could start out by doing a thorough assessment of their capabilities in order to understand what they’re most qualified to do. Then you can assign them responsibilities that align with their skills. If you like, you could even put in safeguards, such as giving each person a partner to carry out their task. As in every relationship, however, you’ll eventually have to take a leap of faith and put your trust in your team.
You’ll be glad you did. Showing you trust your team will empower them by fostering a sense of responsibility. And that will help create a work environment where everyone will be more motivated to contribute their best.
2. Build genuine connections.
Good leaders should know that they are not just leading a team, but a group of individuals. And these individuals aren’t just there to contribute to your organization’s bottom line. They all have their own aspirations, interests, and goals. By making the effort to recognize and acknowledge their personal as well as professional selves, you can create a stronger sense of belonging and loyalty in your team.
But this effort should look authentic. To ensure this, try to create opportunities for building real and tangible connections. For example, you could reserve the first five minutes of your regular stands-ups for everyone to talk about their weekends. Or you could reserve time during individual employee check-ins for them to talk about their own personal ambitions. Don’t neglect unstructured activities as well. Social events, like parties or team-building exercises, can be a great way to get to know different parts of the people you work with.
Do all this successfully and you won’t just create better relationships, but also help individuals feel more valued and satisfied at work.
3. Lead the way when it comes to culture.
The culture of your organization refers to the set of values, attitudes, and beliefs that everyone works within. Although intangible, culture can be just as influential in molding employee behavior as your own leadership – which is why you need to take proactive steps to directly shape it.
The best way to do this is to demonstrate the type of culture you’d like to see yourself. For instance, if you value transparency in the workplace, then you should be open about your decision-making process. If you want to instill a culture of inclusivity and respect, then you should work to create opportunities for everyone to participate, actively promote diversity, and remain open to feedback. And if you want your team members to collaborate more often, look for ways you can work closely alongside them.
People will naturally look to you as a leader for clues on how they should behave in the workplace. If you can use this opportunity to create a positive work culture, you can help make a better experience for everyone.
4. Become a visionary.
A strong vision has long been associated with effective leaders. Prominent examples are when Steve Jobs returned to Apple with a clear vision for its transformation, or when Reed Hastings pivoted Netflix from DVDs into streaming. So it follows that, if you want to be an effective leader, you should have an equally effective vision for your team. Of course, this is easier said than done.
But becoming a visionary isn’t reserved for the select few. Instead of trying to come up with a world-changing, transformative goal, you could start out by sketching out some simpler long-term objectives. Try to consider the mission of your company alongside the more immediate responsibilities of your team, then create some goals that align with both. Once you’ve done this, work on communicating these goals clearly and effectively. You should aim to instill a sense of purpose and direction that will drive your team toward your goal.
Gradually, as you achieve your goals, work on growing them. Constantly keep on challenging yourself and your team as you push the envelope. The result should hopefully inspire creativity, initiative, and innovation, and drive you toward long-term success.
5. Prioritize clear communication.
A talent for clear and effective communication is a hallmark of good leadership. This will allow you to convey your vision and ideas, as well as align your team, share your expectations, and provide your employees with useful feedback. It’s also a key part of preventing misunderstandings.
The first way to start improving your communication skills is through listening. After all, if you don’t know what the people on your team actually need to hear to do their job well, you won’t have much luck communicating with them. Active listening can help you accomplish this. Developing this skill involves focusing on what the person is saying (as opposed to how you will respond), asking insightful questions, avoiding distractions, and paying attention to non-verbal cues. As you do this, you should also work on establishing frequent and open communications with your team. Send out regular updates, check in on everyone’s progress, and emphasize you’re always ready to answer questions.
By prioritizing transparent communications, you will help create a more cohesive and informed team. This will make it easier to solve problems, reduce conflicts, and collaborate.
6. Encourage feedback.
Feedback, whether positive or negative, is a sign of good leadership in multiple ways. Most obviously, it helps leaders understand the concerns and needs of their team so that they can make better decisions. But it also shows that leaders value the input of their team members – and that will help foster mutual respect.
In order to receive honest and constructive feedback, it can be useful to look back at some of the other practices on this list. By showing you trust your team, for instance, you will make it more likely for them to trust you with their opinion. Likewise, building authentic connections with your employees will make it more likely for them to open up to you. And by offering useful feedback to them, you can encourage them through your own example to share their thoughts. It won’t hurt to align them with your long-term vision either. This way, they’ll be looking for ways to help you improve.
But if none of this works, don’t be afraid to simply ask for feedback. By actively seeking it out, then acting on it, you’ll show your team that you are willing to continuously learn and grow in your role. And that’s the best way to become a better leader.