How To Develop Into A Leader

Written by: Paul Smith

Photo by Hillary Ehlen

It’s no secret that leadership skills can play a large role in career development and advancement. Some say people are either born leaders or they’re not. While I have worked with a few highly gifted “natural leaders” during my career, the vast majority did not have those innate leadership qualities. Which means you can learn to become an effective leader (or more effective leader). 

Here are some things to think about.

Who is a leader?

When we think of leaders, we often think of the stereotype of someone who “bosses” others around simply because they have a title. But is that authentic leadership?

John Maxwell, leadership thinker and author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, believes becoming a great leader is all about having a genuine willingness and a true commitment to lead others to achieve a common vision and goals through positive influence. “Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another…A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” 

The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership

In Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Leaders Into Followers, David Marquet argues that a leader is measured not just by what she or he accomplishes, but by the accomplishments of those who work for and alongside that person – at every level of the organization.

Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Leaders Into Followers

In Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Adam Grant finds that the most successful people – he calls them “givers” – are those who encourage and support those around them, earning respect and creating a productive team in the process.

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

If you think about it, chances are you’ve had lots of opportunities to lead. Perhaps you were part of a workgroup, and although you may not have been the official group leader, you stepped in to help get the project to the finish line by lifting others up. That’s leadership!

The Essence Of Leadership

In Awesomely Simple, global business consultant John Spence asked thousands of employees to identify five key characteristics that they look for in their leaders:

Awesomely Simple

  1. Credibility – High level of integrity, competent, accountable, passionate about the work, employees, company and customers
  2. Respectful – Respectful of others, interested in what they have to say, treats everyone fairly
  3. Approachable – Genuine, great listener, maintains open door policy, appreciative
  4. A team player – Follows through on commitments, supports the team and its decisions, is fun to work with, asks good questions, keeps everyone informed, willing to admit when they make a mistake or don’t have the answer
  5. Highly professional – Committed to lifelong learning, has clear set of values, communicates with honesty, treats everyone with respect and dignity, dedicated to delivering superior service to their team and customer, strives for work/life balance and helps others do the same

People are willing to follow a leader who is credible, respectful, authentic, professional and a team player. At the bedrock of these qualities is character and trust.

According to the author of The Trust Edge, David Horsager, “trust, not money, is the currency of business and life.” He also argues that trust is quantifiable and is built on what he calls the “8 pillars of trust:” Clarity, compassion, character, competency, commitment, connection, contribution and consistency.

“Character makes trust possible. And trust makes leadership possible,” according to Maxwell. “Leaders must treat trust as their most precious asset.” Leaders can build trust by continuously modeling competence, connection and character. They earn respect and trust by making good decisions, humbly admitting mistakes and putting the needs of others and the organization before their own. 

If those you lead were asked how trustworthy you are, how would they answer? 

Building habits to becoming a better leader

Here are some practical skills and habits, which applied can enhance your leadership skills:

  • Take initiative- Leaders are proactive. Volunteer to take on more responsibilities while going above and beyond in your current position.
  • See “downfield”- A character trait of a good leader is the ability to foresee and avoid potential problems before they occur. They’re also aware of potential opportunities and take advantage of them to benefit the company and employees.
  • Self-discipline- To be a good leader, you need to be self-disciplined. Even if you have a vision or a good idea, it’s useless without the discipline to execute effectively.
  • Continual Learning- When things are changing rapidly, it is important to constantly learn and grow. An effective leader inspires others to do their best work by being passionate and committed to becoming better each day at his work.
  • Handling Conflicts- Conflict is an inevitable part of life. The real question is how we will handle conflicts when they arise. Leaders don’t avoid conflicts but know how to resolve them in a healthy, respectful way. This requires courage, honesty and good listening skills.
  • Put First Things First- Prioritize, plan and execute your tasks based on importance and impact on your goals rather than simply urgency.
  • Communicate often- Leaders are “active communicators.” A good communicator is not just a great speaker but listens well to others.
  • Involve others- Leaders recognize the value of team members and encourage others to contribute to achieve goals no one person could have done alone.

John Quincy Adams famously said: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” 

Anybody can be an effective leader. “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority,” said Ken Blanchard. If you want to improve your leadership skills, think about what actions you can take starting today to enhance your own skills in the areas listed above and to influence and bring out the best in others. 

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