How to Be a Leader: 6 Qualifications and Qualities
A lot of people equate being a leader with being a boss. They could not be more wrong. We’ve written about leadership in the past — we know how important effective and true leadership is — “[Leadership] isn’t about the titles, or even the accolades. Effective leadership is much more meaningful, impactful and profound. It’s earned and worked for. There is no set formula or step-by-step plan, it depends on the culture and needs of the organization.” There couldn’t be a more accurate statement. Being a leader means having a profound impact on one’s self, but also more importantly, on others — and by extension, the organization or group you belong to. It’s more than just handing out orders or delegating / assigning tasks.
Let’s take a closer look at how to be a leader. To start with, leadership can be learned. Everyone can be a good leader, provided they have the right attitude and the right mindset for it. A FastCompany article, quoting Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, says, “Contrary to the opinion of many people, leaders are not born. Leaders are made, and they are made by effort and hard work.” It’s all in the mind. And it’s not just about “owning” it, but really internalizing what it means to be a leader and how to lead people.
But some people are natural leaders, meaning they naturally have what it takes to lead people. But again, you cannot simply “wing” leadership. A lot goes into leading effectively and leading sufficiently to make a significant enough contribution to an organization. And again, you must understand, leadership isn’t simply about literally “taking the lead” by getting people to do your bidding, or having people follow your orders, or having an office of your own. Leadership can be stressful and complicated, and entails hard work. But the rewards leadership has — both for yourself and the organization — more than make up for all the effort you need to put in.
A good and effective leader inspires and motivates. He or she doesn’t even need to order people around, most times. Everyone is driven to do what needs to be done — and go even beyond what is required. That’s because a leader sets the example. He or she sets the standard, which isn’t just doing what’s mandatory; leadership is about looking at the bigger picture, looking at what can make the most and the biggest positive impact. Leadership guru John C. Maxwell says it best: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
Having good leaders is integral to a company or organizations success; that’s why everyone should try to learn how to be a good leader, because in the long run, it spells success for everyone involved.
Characteristics of a good leader
We’ve mentioned before that good and effective leadership entails a change in mindset. That means internalizing the qualities of a good leader. Here are some characteristics to keep in mind if you want to learn how to be a leader — one that’s effective and a credit to himself / herself and the organization.
1. Honest and trustworthy
There really is no going around it — honesty IS the best policy when you want to learn how to be a leader. Who would want to follow (willingly, at least) someone who cannot be trusted, someone who says one thing and does another? Lies, deceit and manipulation are hardly attractive qualities even in people who aren’t aspiring to lead, what more in someone who wants to? No real success is possible without honesty, trustworthiness and integrity. You can hardly expect to trust people if you can do the same for them. A significant part of how to be a leader is giving, and that means what you give, you receive in turn (in general). So if you’re dishonest with people, expect the same from them.
A study published by the Harvard Business Review cites a “high ethical and moral standards” as the top attribute a leader should have. The study is taken from 195 global leaders, a testament to the legitimacy of the results. A high level of ethics and morals means creating an atmosphere and culture where respect, fairness, honor, honesty, and integrity are welcome. Workplaces with this kind of culture are some of the most successful in the world, since everyone can be at ease, free to attend to the task at hand instead of wasting valuable time worrying about backbiting and office politics.
2. Good communication skills
Poor communication leads to poor outcomes. And this doesn’t mean being good at speeches — many people are good at talking, but fail miserably when it is time to walk the talk, so to speak. It doesn’t matter how good your words are or even how charismatic you are if you can’t deliver when it is time to take action.
Good communication also means being able to listen. Not all good ideas come from the top. Many who truly and genuinely listen to rank-and-file are surprised to see how insightful they can be, especially when armed with the right information. Learning how to be a leader entails learning to get over pride (which is a dangerous thing to have in the first place) and being open-minded to suggestions from others, as well as receiving (constructive) criticism.
Good leadership, and with it, good communication, foster a sense of belonging within and organization and can do wonders to motivate others and drive them to become more productive.
3. Clear, concise, and organized
Time and time again it’s been said that communication is key to any relationship. And so the same is true when it comes to leadership. Leaders should clearly communicate goals, tasks, intentions, and even vision. It’s tough to follow when things are vague and disorganized. It’s important that everyone is one the same page so that everyone moves in unison toward a goal (or goals).
It’s also essential to have a good grasp of what’s on one’s plate, and know what needs to be done in order to see things through. We’re probably all known someone who runs around like a headless chicken, only to leaving mess and unfinished business in the end. Organization means knowing what, when, and how to do things. It means attention to detail and leaving no stone unturned. It means checking and double checking. Speed means nothing if the end product is flawed and / or incorrect. Organization means being able to accomplish things efficiently because there is a system that has been developed and improved over time that does its best not to waste anyone’s time, resources, and effort. In the end, this means meeting goals, or even achieving more than what you expected, which is always a good thing. Organized leaders know what’s happening around them, so even though they’re caught off-guard, they’re equipped to deal with it.
4. Flexible and decisive
Which brings us to this inescapable fact: Unexpected things happen. More often than not, plans can go awry and things don’t always turn up the way you expect. Good leaders can think on their feet and are always ready to adjust when needed. Inflexibility leads to indecisiveness, which is frankly, unproductive. This is not to say that one should always jump to do the first thing that springs to mind when things don’t go as planned — it simply means that knowing when, where and how to act is the hallmark of a good leader. Flexibility also means being able to see opportunity and grab it; more often than not, great opportunities cannot be predicted, but many miss out on them because they just want to stick to something comfortable and routine. Good and true leaders are always on the lookout for better things for themselves, their team and their organization, and are prepared to act accordingly when they find it.
Engage in honest, open communication.
One of the most important elements of effective leadership is creating an open line of communication with your team members. Sanjay Patoliya, the founder and director of Teclogiq, said that your own honesty and transparency should serve as an example for your team members.
“When you are responsible for a team of people, it is important to be straightforward,” he said. “Your company and its employees are a reflection of yourself, and if you make honest and ethical behavior as a key value, your team will follow.”
Brownlee added that great leaders are able to customize their interactions and communication styles to suit each situation and team member, based on individual preferences. “This means they take the time to figure out which communication mode is preferred by each team member – e.g., are they a text person, email, phone, or face-to-face? They’re also great listeners and are authentically interested in other people.”
Displaying active communication skills and transparency can build trust among your team and improve overall morale. Ruslan Fazlyev, CEO and founder of e-commerce solutions provider Ecwid, said that in all your communications, it’s important to be genuine above all else.
Key takeaway: Maintaining honest and straightforward communication inspires your employees to reciprocate. Each team member may have a different communication style so it’s important to tailor your communication based on the individual.
Connect with your team members.
Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie, a leadership writer and consultant, said that being a “more human” leader requires positivity, purpose, empathy, compassion, humility and love. These key traits will put you on the road to genuine connections with the members of your team.
“Building a real, personal connection with your teammates is vital to developing the shared trust necessary to build a strong culture of accountability and exceptional performance,” St. Marie said. “With that culture in place, the team can achieve a successful business, a happy team and a fulfilled leader.”
To build a connection with each of your team members, focus on getting to know their personality, interests, strengths, weaknesses, hobbies and preferences. This can give you insight into their goals and motivations.
Patoliya said that successful leaders allow their teams to develop autonomy and add value according to their own personal strengths. “Being able to recognize the strengths of individuals within their team, and allowing them to be responsible and accountable, not only increases employees’ confidence in themselves and their leader, but also increases their performance.”
How do you become a great leader?
Start on the inside
Great leaders always manage themselves. To manage yourself you first have to know yourself. Great leaders understand their own motivations and where they have the most room to learn and grow. A good place to start is knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
Start by performing a self-audit to discover how you perform best and where you could make your greatest contribution. How do you learn? How do you communicate? Are you a listener, a writer, or do you communicate through doing? Do you work best with small or large groups? Cohesion or tension?
Show appreciation to your employees
Find a mentor
Learn to be a team player
No matter how good of a manager you are or how smart and talented you feel, if you try to do all the work yourself, you’ll get burned out — delegating work is one of the core skills of any great leader.
Define a clear priority
“To support a strong sense of purpose in your team, the best action is to make sure your actions as an organization truly do align with a larger, worthwhile mission. Second, provide opportunities for your team members to connect with a purpose beyond the self in a way that can be self-directed, and based on intrinsic motivation.”
Get your hands dirty
What are the everyday challenges of being a good leader?
Earning the trust of your employees
Dealing with pressure and stress
And some of these decisions will be tough — firing people, choosing between two great candidates for a specific role, or moving an employee to a different department because they’re no longer performing well.
Managing difficult people
Being a leader doesn’t mean people will always like you, and vice versa. You’ll deal with employees who don’t share your values and who resist following directions. But great leaders don’t avoid conflict, they deal with this friction and learn to communicate clearly.
Your employee who is difficult or won’t follow directions is an important source of information, either about your own management style or about the customer or product. Don’t squander the opportunity to learn from someone who disagrees. They might be motivated by a passion for making a bigger impact. They might have a different perspective or hold the clue for a new approach that will drive value for the company.