What are the qualities and skills of the best leaders? Many people are promoted to management positions because the company feels they can do the work, but the reality I see every day in my corporate coaching work is that they’re often unprepared to lead their teams effectively to exceed organizational goals. In a recent Harvard Business Review study, 195 leaders from 15 countries were invited to choose the skills they believe are key to developing true leadership. Let’s examine the findings — some of which may seem challenging. The important thing to remember is that leadership skills are acquired on a continuum; as you begin to put these into practice, over time the behaviours will become more instinctive but you should strive for constant improvement of these over the long term.
- Demonstrate strong ethics and provide a sense of security through clear communication
When asked to identify the single-most important quality of a leader, more than 67% percent of leaders interviewed chose the ability to have a strong sense of ethics and morals. Perhaps you’re surprised they didn’t prioritize the more typical characteristics we’ve associated with leadership. In fact, ethical standards are crucial to creating a trusted environment for employees. An ethical leader translates to a commitment to equity, which leads to the belief that people and key players will play by the rules of the game. Ensuring that people feel genuinely safe should be the primary goal of leaders. But how? This skill consists of adopting behaviours that are in keeping with your values.
Communication is also a key part of instilling a feeling of security among people. It’s important to be able to give clear direction and communicate goals (59%), and to communicate effectively the leader’s expectations of what s/he needs from people (56%).
In a secure environment with clear communication, people will relax, allowing for increased engagement among teams, more creativity and willingness to work together to achieve both personal and organizational goals.
- Give others the power to self-organize
Giving clear direction but then allowing people to organize their time and work has been identified as another of the most important leadership skills.
No leader can do everything alone. It’s essential to distribute power throughout the organization, including among the subordinate teams who are closest to tactical activities.
Research has repeatedly shown that empowered teams are more productive and proactive, provide better customer service, and have higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their team and organization. And yet, many leaders struggle to let people self-organize, or fail to delegate tasks because they deem them ‘too important.’ They are reluctant to let others make mistakes and they are afraid to suffer the negative consequences of the decisions of their subordinates. Good leaders are not afraid to let their people become actively involved by giving them concrete responsibilities.
- Promote a sense of connection and belonging
Leaders who communicate often and openly (42%) and create the feeling of success and failure together (38%) provide a solid foundation for connection and sense of belonging.
We are a social species. It is therefore instinctively natural to want to connect and feel a sense of belonging. From an evolutionary point of view, attachment is important because it improves our chances of survival in a world full of predators. Research suggests that a sense of connectedness may also affect productivity and emotional well-being. For example, scientists have discovered that emotions are contagious in the workplace: employees feel emotionally exhausted just by looking at unpleasant interactions between colleagues.
There are simple ways to promote belonging among people: Pay special attention by learning about them, recognize them and call them by their names, and remember their interests and the names of family members, for example. This sets the tone for a team which supports each other. Using a song, motto, symbol or ritual that uniquely identifies your team can also reinforce that sense of connection. Creating a connection and a sense of belonging is forged over time and persistence.
- Be open to new ideas and encourage learning
Great leaders have flexibility; this includes a willingness to change their mind (52%), openness to new ideas and approaches (39%), and a willingness to explore trial and error (37%). If a leader has these assets, s/he encourages learning.
To encourage people to learn, leaders must first ensure their ability to learn themselves.
Hold judgment until everyone has spoken and let people know that all ideas are considered. A greater diversity of ideas will emerge, as people will feel comfortable and safe in promoting their ideas and opinions.
Failure is a necessary part of learning, but our quest for results can also discourage people from taking risks. To solve this problem, leaders must create a culture conducive to calculated risk-taking. One way to do this is to use controlled experiments — A / B testing — which will allow small failures and require postmortem team discussion and adjustments. Building collective intelligence allows people to learn from each other’s mistakes, improve their own tasks, and achieve conclusive results for the larger group.
- Feed growth
Finally, respondents agreed that engaging in continuing education (43%) and helping future generations to be true leaders (38%) are also undeniable attributes of great leaders.
Think about who you are most grateful to: parents, teachers, friends and mentors. Chances are they took care of you or taught you something important. When leaders appreciate their people by showing their commitment to their growth, the same emotions are felt. Just as we are grateful to those who have taught us something important, we also feel the need to express our gratitude or loyalty by making an extra effort to please a positive leader. On the other hand, a negative leader who leads by inspiring fear will generate stress and harm the quality of work. If you want to inspire the best in your team, advocate for your people, support their training and promotion, and sponsor their projects.
Each of these qualities is essential to great leadership. Without them, the people they lead will not perform as well as they can. Organizations must learn the best ways to identify and develop these necessary characteristics among existing and emerging leaders. Leaders who practice great leadership qualities can therefore encourage their teams to perform extraordinary tasks, develop their potential, and achieve outstanding team and corporate results.