We often use the word “leadership” in daily life, applying it to some skill, attitude, or even a group of people. The term is so commonly used that its meaning seems obvious. But is it? Let’s dive into the topic and see what makes a true leader, how to become one, and what leadership’s different features are.

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The standard definition of leadership is “the ability of an individual or a group of individuals to influence and guide other members”. Some traits of a person’s character may strengthen one’s leadership. Charismatic leaders possess a strong personality type that enables them to guide many people by finding proper words and emotional triggers to build confidence in their minds. It’s truly inspiring, and people feel energized to get things done. Still, I believe that leadership is not something you are born with; it’s a skill that we may train or gain through life experiences.

What makes a good leader?

Leadership starts with yourself. First, you must cope with yourself and have well-developed personal leadership to become a role model for your followers. In other words, you can’t be great at everything, but if you promote something in your group, you should demonstrate it by your example. A leader inspires his followers and serves as an example to others.

Leadership skills. You may find a long list of leadership skills in different sources. From my point of view, all of them can be grouped into 3 categories: Establishing a vision, Critical thinking, and Interpersonal skills (incl. motivation, communication, conflict management, etc.). To elaborate more on this, a leader should:

  • start with the end result in one’s mind: have a vision of where you’re going and build your path there,
  • be decisive, use different sources as input, and don’t make emotional moves,
  • be courageous and take responsibility,
  • enable and embrace others’ talents,
  • provide constant and unbiased feedback, appreciation, and guidance,
  • possess highly developed emotional intelligence,
  • promote and embody only ethical behaviour,
  • continue self-development and promote it among followers.

Leadership is not management (but it may include it). People follow true leaders when they believe and trust them. Anyone can demonstrate leadership abilities, and the formal job title is not a necessary attribute of a leader.

I had a Business Analyst on one of my previous projects who had managed to become a true leader of one sub-team. She was so much in the context of the team’s activities, continuously introduced new approaches and features resulting in several improvements, and established a strong personal touch with everyone involved that both team and client trusted her more than themselves when it comes to that scope. She had no legitimate power over those people, but they always followed her advice and asked for guidance without hesitation. Under her leadership, the project was able not only to achieve product’s performance improvements and cost of operations reduction but also to keep and grow top talents in that team, resulting in client and team satisfaction.

Understand your leadership style. Different sources distinguish multiple leadership styles. I like Goleman’s categorization: Commanding, Visionary, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting, and Coaching. Even though each type’s overall emotional impact may differ, there’s no “good” or “bad” leadership style. Each can be unique and helpful, depending on the circumstances. Take time to understand your style, its pros, and cons, and use it wisely. Various assessment resources may help you identify your dominant leadership style[1].

Be firm but agile. Different circumstances might require different leadership styles to be applied. Each person has some primary leadership style, but to succeed, you must consider situational leadership. This includes: identifying the team’s current stage of development, applying the appropriate leadership approach, and adjusting it when the team gets to the next level of its maturity.

For example, when the team is relatively fresh and junior, you may want to be more direct or commanding to reach the nearest goals. While this approach may change to “coaching”, once you feel that the team becomes stronger and more confident in what they are doing, followed by a “supporting” and “delegating” setup. Lack of guidance in immature teams can lead to chaos, poor performance, and disappointment. While excessive control in highly mature units can be treated as micro-management and lack of trust.

Fig. 1. Hersey & Blanchard Situational Leadership Model

It is also important to recognize others’ motivational factors, adapt and apply the proper approach to each person accordingly, and embrace others’ leadership endeavors: strong leaders help other leaders grow. Emerging leaders should not be perceived as competition but rather as a helping hand and an excellent opportunity for delegation, the possibility to focus on strategic objectives, and scaling up.

Collaborate with other leaders. Leadership is not only about being an individual leading a group but also involves interactions with other leaders: within the project, your organization, the client’s organization, or third parties. Keeping the balance between your goals and others’ interests is essential. The best-case scenario is when you collaborate with those parties and share the same vision and approach. The opposite method is when leaders compete or continuously disagree, creating disorder and chaos.

Some time ago, I was working in a program with two leaders of opposite types: one was highly people-oriented and affiliative, while the other one was result-driven and commanding. The first one was a charismatic person who built great teams and relations with people, putting team members’ interests at the top. Everyone was delighted working with him as a person. The other leader was strict and demanding, but his working style led to excellent business results and new opportunities. Even though it was sometimes hard to deal with this kind of person, he produced many innovative ideas and could always find the solution to any issue or prevent one. Many were turning to this leader for a piece of advice and mentorship; it was a great example of thought leadership in practice.

There was some “storming” period in these leaders’ collaboration, confronting how things should be done. But later, it resulted in perfect synergy. While one was more focused on having the right people on the project and keeping them motivated, the other person was able to drive business extension and address the challenges. They’ve found a way to apply their strong sides together, which resulted in even more successful collaboration with motivated teams, smooth operations, and new business opportunities.

Earn your leadership every day. One can’t be recognized as a leader to sit back then and relax. Leadership should be applied and demonstrated continuously. Otherwise, the group will lose faith in such a person and see no value in following him. Constantly grow your emotional bank account with people and take good care of it. Trust helps leaders progress and advance in one’s endeavors, but any manipulative or non-ethical behaviour will be treated as betrayal and break the trust immediately.

To conclude, leadership is crucial, as it brings lots of positive impacts from different angles:

  • It enables a group of people to achieve positive outcomes.
  • It increases people’s faith, resulting in more efficient work, low attrition, and satisfied members.
  • It helps you to grow as a professional, as well as others, to develop their skills, ownership, and creativity.
  • Last but not least, it drives an organization’s business results.

Leadership is a powerful thing requiring a vast amount of work, but it pays off, bringing success to you and your organization. Put effort into building your leadership, and its foundation will be one of your best investments for the future.

[1] https://www.coach-you.co.uk/leadership-style-assessment/