What is leadership?

Leadership conjures different images for each of us. You might imagine a politician engaging in a passionate debate, an explorer blazing new trails for their group to follow, or an executive of a company developing innovative strategies to beat the competition.

The word leadership can have different meanings and interpretations, but at its very core, the term is about setting direction, creating an inspiring vision, and working toward something new and exciting. It’s one thing to set the path, but leaders must also use relevant skills to guide their followers to the intended destination as efficiently as possible.

In this helpful guide, we’re shedding light on the process of leadership in business and the workplace to help you stand out and succeed. We’ll teach you how leadership differs from management, the top leadership skills and qualities you need to attain, and how you can train to become a good leader.

What leadership is not

Before we delve into an in-depth definition of what leadership is, let’s define exactly what leadership is not.

Leadership does not relate to superiority or chain of command within a company

Contrary to popular belief, leadership is not exclusive to anyone’s position in their workplace. Just because someone is an executive manager, for example, does not automatically make them a leader. Additionally, just because a worker isn’t in a managerial role, does not mean that they don’t possess leadership qualities.

Leadership does not require a special title 

This ties in with our point above, but to really drive this idea home, think about this: an individual can maintain leadership within their family, local community, place of worship, and more, yet they won’t necessarily possess a unique title that sets them apart from others. Rather, their leadership status comes down to their actions — not their title.

Leadership is not a personality trait one must be born with

Sure, plenty of individuals might be described as a “natural leader,” but it’s important not to think that just because someone is charismatic, outgoing, and domineering, that they are automatically a leader. Alternatively, an individual who doesn’t possess these personality traits can still be an excellent leader. Leadership is something that can be practiced by anyone, regardless of whether they have extroverted characteristics or not.

Leadership is not the same as management

The terms leadership and management are often thought to mean the same thing, but in reality, these terms are not synonymous. Managers are typically responsible for planning, measuring, monitoring, coordinating, solving, hiring, firing, and more. In other words, they manage — not lead.

Think about it this way: a manager isn’t automatically a good leader. They perform these tasks because it’s part of their managerial position within a company, not necessarily because they are inspired and driven to do so. Additionally, individuals follow their command because their own position requires them to be managed by this hierarchical position.

What is leadership?

Now that you know what leadership is not, let’s take a look at exactly what leadership is and why it’s beneficial within a business setting.

Leadership is a method of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the accomplishment of a unified goal.

This definition can be broken down into 4 key takeaways:

  • Leadership is about being able and willing to inspire others and motivate them into action. It’s about social impact — not using power, status, or force.
  • Leadership requires the support and assistance of others. A leader cannot simply work alone.
  • Leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are many styles of leadership and paths a leader can take to achieve their vision.
  • Leadership is working toward and guiding others to achieve a shared goal. One cannot influence without an intended outcome.

Leadership not only refers to a set of traits that can be nurtured but also a collection of skills that can be learned and perfected. Because of this, everyone has the ability to be an effective leader, and leadership can be utilized in any role, industry, or organization — including both within the business and the community.

What does a leader do?

At the very core of leadership lies ideas, both original and borrowed. It is a leader’s ability to seek inspiration from existing ideas and use skills such as innovation, clarity, and foresight to develop their own vision. This vision will build upon existing structures and aim to produce an outcome that is more effective for all involved.

When you think about leaders within your own life, you might think of a:

  • President
  • CEO
  • Sports team captain
  • Church minister
  • School principal

Essentially, a leader is someone who:

  • Produces an inspiring vision of the future
  • Motivates and inspires others to connect with that vision
  • Manages what is required to achieve the vision
  • Creates and mentors a team, to increase the chances of achieving the vision

How does leadership work in business?

In business, leadership is the major factor that makes everything work together seamlessly. It involves the ability of a company’s management to set and achieve specific goals, act decisively, outshine its competitors, and inspire employees to perform to their absolute best.

In the business world, people with strong leadership skills are often promoted to senior positions such as:

  • CEO (Chief Executive Officer)
  • COO (Chief Operating Officer)
  • CFO (Chief Financial Officer)
  • President
  • Chairman

When we talk about leadership roles in business, we are referring to those in high-performance roles who ultimately have the expectation of increasing their company’s bottom line. While the term leadership isn’t generally linked to profit, it is a big driving force behind a leadership role within a business.

These profit expectations might be set by higher management, boards, and/or shareholders. If someone in a leadership role fails to meet these expectations, then they may be terminated from the position.

In business, leadership is important, as it offers the following benefits:

  • Ensures the company maintains its vision
  • Inspires morale among employees
  • Guides a company towards diversity
  • Communicates new strategic decisions
  • Ensures employees remain motivated
  • Acquires necessary resources and support
  • Encourages continuous learning and development
  • Inspires a collective identity between staff and their company

Leadership vs. management

Previously, we mentioned how leadership and management are often mistaken as the same thing, however, they each differ in several important ways.

While it’s true that both leadership and management involve having to successfully utilize and be in control of the resources available, the traits of a true leader go beyond these duties. For example, a leader must inspire those who follow them and drive them toward a common goal. While a manager might drive their subordinates toward specific tasks or actions, they may or may not be described as inspiring by these fellow employees.

Leaders also highly value innovation, as they themselves are often seen as a trailblazer. As a result, they’re not concerned with existing structures or traditions and will aim to do whatever it takes to achieve a specific goal. Managers, on the other hand, belong within a corporate structure and therefore have less freedom to break rules in order to achieve their goals. Chaos is something to be avoided by a manager, yet leaders work fairly independently and don’t see potential chaos as an obstacle to their goals — particularly if they achieve those goals in the end.

Caring less about potential chaos can present problems, however, as it means leaders are less likely to worry about the negative side effects on interpersonal relationships or the wellbeing of those around them. Managers, alternatively, see it as part of their role to smooth over any conflict between employees, helping potential issues from worsening over time.

To summarize,

A leader:

  • May or may not be in a managerial position
  • Must inspire those who follow them
  • Values and encourages innovation
  • Isn’t afraid to challenge existing structures
  • Operates with a lot of independence
  • May be less concerned with social or personal relationships

A manager:

  • May or may not be considered a leader
  • Doesn’t have to inspire those who follow them
  • Values reasonability and command
  • Seeks to conform to and preserve existing corporate structures
  • Generally, operates as a link in the business chain of command
  • May be more concerned with social or personal relationships

Of course, these are general guidelines, and may not be applicable to every type of manager or every type of leader.

Benefits of strong leadership skills

By now, you’ve probably realized that having strong leadership skills certainly comes with its advantages. Let’s take a look at the top 5 benefits below.

1. You can identify your own strengths and weaknesses

Acquiring strong leadership skills allows you to determine what you’re good at, as well as which areas require further development. This is because when you lead a team, your strengths and weaknesses are amplified and reflected in the outcome of the project. If miscommunications arose along the way, for example, then you know that you must pay more attention to improving your communication skills.

2. You can better understand the company’s direction 

Being a leader means setting defined goals for both yourself and the team of people you lead. In order to understand what direction you must head in, it’s vital that you understand the company’s goals and how these must align with the project you’re spearheading. As you take on more leadership responsibilities, these goals will become more and more evident to you.

3. You’ll know the best ways to motivate your team

Individual employees are motivated by different things, whether it’s recognition, rewards, or incentives for a job well done. As you fine-tune your leadership skills, you’ll become more aware of these motivations and be able to use them to your advantage to get the best out of your team. When your team’s efficiency and morale are high, it allows you to achieve the intended goal of your project or task quickly.

4. You can unify your team

Remember how we mentioned that leadership skills can help you determine your company’s most important goals? Well, knowing these goals can also go a long way in unifying your team, as you’ll have a clearer vision for exactly what the project should entail, as well as how each team member must play a role. When your team clearly understands the goals and their duties in achieving them, they find it easier to work together successfully.

5. You’ll retain more team members 

Exceptional leaders ensure their team performs well and experiences a feeling of accomplishment. When employees are able to associate these positive feelings with the work they do and those they work with, they may be more likely to stay with the company long-term, therefore boosting staff retention.  

Leadership skills and qualities

Of course, no one is born a leader. Even if they are naturally blessed with personality traits that lend themselves to leadership, they still must hone these skills and qualities to remain an effective leader.

Thankfully, the skills and qualities that make a good leader aren’t exclusive and can be learned by anyone, at any time.   

What are leadership skills?

Leadership skills are the abilities you use when coordinating with other people to reach a common goal. These skills are often utilized in management roles or when leading a project, as leadership qualities are required to motivate team members to get the job done, often within a tight schedule.

Developing leadership skills that make you a good leader is something you can strive for at any stage in your career. These skills are used in every organization and at every level, so you can be assured that they will never go to waste.

Great leadership involves not just one, but several attributes which work together successfully. We’ll be exploring each of these skills and qualities in the following sections.

Qualities that make a good leader

There are numerous qualities that allow you to succeed as a leader — 20 in fact! 

1. Accountability. Responsibility and ownership are vital as a leader, as not only should leaders hold themselves accountable, but also the team members around them.

2. Active listening. Leadership is also about asking the right questions to discover vital information to further assist both yourself and those around you in achieving your ultimate goal. Active listening involves doing more than just hearing someone. It’s important to really listen to and absorb what they’re saying.

3. Collaboration. Rather than create competition or confusion about who is responsible for what tasks, it’s important for leaders to encourage collaboration across team members, other staff, outside organizations, and third-party contractors. Creating healthy partnerships and working towards a shared goal is key.  

4. Courage. Being a leader isn’t easy, and at times, it requires you to make courageous decisions. These might include making decisions that are unpopular among team members, but which you know will ultimately pay off in the end. Additionally, as a leader, you may have to correct behavior among your peers.

5. Communication. When leading a project and group of employees, excellent communication is especially important. This involves speaking clearly, positively, and openly, and encouraging others to do the same.

6. Empathetic. Being empathetic is all about acting in a compassionate, sympathetic, and considerate manner. It’s important for leaders to emulate this quality so they can understand how the employees around them are feeling about their tasks, the project, company vision, direction, and more.

7. Flexible. When you’re spearheading a project or working with a team of people, it isn’t unusual for the direction shift, especially with tasks, responsibilities, and goals. Therefore, it’s helpful for a leader to remain flexible so they can constantly adjust to these needs without sacrificing the success of the project.

8. Focus. Focus involves being clear about all aspects of a project or task. It’s also important for leaders to help the rest of the team be efficient and focused.

9. Growth mindset. Having a growth mindset involves embracing challenges, believing skills and knowledge can be strengthened, seeing problems that arise as temporary setbacks. This leadership quality also believes mistakes are an essential part of learning and views feedback as a vital source of information.

10. Humility. When leaders have the ability to admit when they aren’t right, this makes them humble. It’s also vital that leaders can put the needs of others before their own, take responsibility for their actions, and seek to add value to the lives of others.

11. Innovation. Through being innovative, leaders should be able to come up with new ideas and transform them into reality. Through these new ideas and methods, a leader should be adding efficiency to their team’s work, a project’s progress, or the company as a whole. Innovation requires creativity, as well as problem-solving and filtering the ideas of others.

12. Passion. The leader of a team should be passionate about working with their team and their shared goal, and in return, foster this passion among those around them. This shared passion creates unity among a team and is vital for success.

13. Patience. When working within a team, miscommunications, errors, and other setbacks are expected to happen. Therefore, it’s vital that leaders have the patience to calmly work through these obstacles and offer the correct guidance.

14. Problem-solver. Good problem-solving is essential for moving past obstacles when working on a project. A leader must be able to identify the problem, come up with alternative solutions, select the best course of action, and implement this resolution.

15. Resilience. Leaders have the responsibility to enhance areas of the business or team they’re in charge of, however, setbacks can arise. They may have to create new processes, change team members, or challenge the existing state of affairs. Resilience involves having the ability to cope with any fallout mentally or emotionally.

16. Respect. It’s also important for leaders to hold high regard for their team members in terms of their wishes, beliefs, and abilities. When a leader shows respect for those around them, it is likely to be returned, creating a more harmonious working environment.

17. Transparency. Being open and honest as a leader will make you more credible and trustworthy in the eyes of those around you. This is why transparency is a great quality to have, as it shows your team members that you have nothing to hide.

18. Trust. As a leader, it’s also vital that you trust not only your ability to get the job done but the abilities of those around you too. This trust further boosts mutual respect and team morale.

19. Self-awareness. Leadership often involves being seen as an authority on certain matters. This involves a degree of self-awareness, as leaders must recognize their own strengths and expertise, as well as when they should consult others who are more experienced.

20. Hunger for knowledge. Leaders should always have a hunger for knowledge and the desire to constantly improve their skills. This involves keeping on top of leading trends within their industry and sharing this knowledge with those they work with. Always striving to be better allows a leader to remain inspiring and effective.

Top leadership skills

Below is a list of the top leadership skills that may prove valuable to anyone applying for a new job or looking to advance in their current career.

1. Leaders serve. Leadership serves the team — not the other way around. A top leader will ensure their group feels monitored, supported, and recognized for their efforts. Additionally, it is the purpose of the leader to make sure team members have the tools and resources required to do their job properly.

2. Leaders have a vision. Leading a group of people begins with an important vision that is then shared among each other. This is how a leader inspires their followers, as they focus on a singular, overarching goal that is both bold and ambitious.

Keep in mind, however, that your vision isn’t the same as your pitch. Instead, it’s more philosophical and involves asking important questions such as:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Why do we do what we do?
  • Where do we want to be as a company in 10 years?

3. Leaders are empathetic. Leaders are required to have emotional intelligence that allows them to put themselves in the shoes of others, understand their troubles, and solve issues that arise. It’s this ability to empathize with clients, team members, and other employees that elevates a leader and earns them respect from their peers.

4. Leaders take risks. The key to a great leader is knowing when to take calculated risks that will ultimately pay off with rewards. They see opportunities where others might not and are able to spread this enthusiasm among their followers. Not only does a great leader have the confidence required to make a big decision and see it out, but they also have the humility to admit when they make a mistake, without blaming it on others.

5. Leaders build teams. True leadership is about working with a group of people with a shared vision. However, managing people is often the most difficult aspect of being a leader. Successful leaders maintain a positive attitude with their followers and instill trust within them. They’re also experts at boosting morale and keeping a team unified towards a common goal.

6. Leaders are thorough. The best leaders don’t believe in a hands-off approach to their vision. Instead, they set the bar high for their team and give them every possible opportunity to fulfill their potential. By being detailed, methodical, and diligent in their leadership position, they bring out the best in those around them, while treating them with the care, respect, and attentiveness they require.

7. Leaders motivate. One of the main features of a good leader is they know how to motivate people toward action. It simply isn’t enough to only speak and give orders; instead, leaders need to ask their team members questions, allow them to offer their point of view, and both listen and understand what they need.

An important part of this motivation is setting goals and targets for each team member to monitor and accomplish. These goals should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

8. Leaders make decisions. Leadership is about setting clear directions in the face of uncertainty. They make the decisions necessary to overcome obstacles and progress toward the desired result. Not only is it important to direct others on this path, but also to take responsibility for any potential fallout that comes with those decisions.

9. Leaders coach. It is a leader’s role to train and mentor others so they perform extraordinary work. In this sense, they are also like a coach, and therefore must share their own knowledge and expertise to build others up and put them on their own paths to success.

10. Leaders are confident. Despite leading their followers, one of the vital aspects of a leader is that they don’t seek recognition, nor do they feel the need to please everyone. It is this confidence within themselves that sets them apart from others, while their ability to have confidence in their team members earns them mutual respect from their peers.

11. Leaders influence. While leaders might be seen as powerful people, it’s true that power alone doesn’t allow someone to lead. Instead, successful leaders are influential, and they win over the hearts and minds of their followers. Through a combination of the leadership skills discussed in this section, a leader has the ability to influence people’s thoughts and actions.

12. Leaders innovate. Excellent leadership involves inventing, transforming, and revolutionizing. It’s all about being innovative enough to adapt things for the better and never being afraid to challenge existing models, systems, or processes.

13. Leaders get results. It’s one thing to lead a team, but it’s another entirely to achieve results. Leaders don’t just say they’ll achieve something and lack the evidence to back it up. Instead, they’re results-driven and look to performance indicators to track their progress.

How to become a good leader

Becoming a good leader isn’t just a skill that’s nice to have. It’s also a highly sought-after quality that will increase your likelihood of landing a promotion, securing your dream job, and successfully climbing the ladder within your industry.

While excelling as a leader takes time and effort, there are steps you can start taking today to further develop your leadership skills.

1. Find a mentor

The best way to learn is by working one-on-one with someone who you admire for their own leadership qualities. When thinking of relevant mentors, look to your current company, previous organizations you’ve worked for, or connections within your local community. Aim to have regular meetings with your mentor in which they can help you set leadership goals, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and further develop your skills.

2. Find resources

There are also countless resources available that can help you to develop your leadership skills, including podcasts, books, videos, online articles, and more. Many of these are even free, so don’t pass up the opportunity to expand your leadership knowledge.

Just some of the most well-known resources relating to developing leadership qualities include:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • Dare to Lead podcast
  • TED’s ‘How to be a great leader’ playlist

3. Participate in training courses or workshops

There are also plenty of training courses and workshops you can undertake to further your leadership skills — including both online and in-person. Future Learn is a great resource for free online courses and your local colleges or universities may offer in-person training. Additionally, you can ask your organization if they offer employees any courses or workshops to help them develop leadership skills.

4. Study the various leadership styles

When it comes to leadership styles, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The way a person leads will depend on their own strengths and preferences, as well as the preferences of their team members and organization.  

Additionally, different situations will call for different leadership styles to achieve the best possible outcome. Therefore, it’s important that you familiarize yourself with the following leadership types for ultimate success:

  • Authoritative: a hierarchical approach to leading
  • Consultative: relies on consistent feedback from the team and an open-door policy
  • Democratic or participative: the decision-making process is heavily influenced by team members
  • Laissez-faire or delegative: team members’ progress is monitored, but they are ultimately in charge of their day-to-day tasks or projects
  • Persuasive: similar to an authoritative leadership style, but leaders share an honest justification behind decision-making policies
  • Transformational: leaders focus on creating an environment that supports innovation and inspires team members to reach past their full potential
  • Collaborative: places an emphasis on employee satisfaction and teamwork

5. Become a leader of an existing group

One of the best ways to strengthen leadership skills is by stepping up and leading. Think about the groups you currently belong to, whether it’s a sports group, book club, church group, or more. Do they already have a leader, and if not, do they require one?

6. Start a new group or team

If you don’t already belong to any groups or believe your community requires a particular group that you’d be interested in leading, then start one! Not only is it a great way to meet like-minded people and practice a hobby you’re passionate about, but the planning, initialization, and management phases of a group provide you with valuable leadership experience.

7. Seek feedback about your performance 

It doesn’t matter what stage of your leadership journey you’re in, feedback is also a valuable tool to help you strengthen your existing skills. Ask your team what works for them, as well as what areas they can offer suggestions for improvement.

Conclusion

Now that you’ve read our insightful guide to leadership, you’re well on your way to developing your leadership skills and excelling in the workforce. Remember, being a great leader is more than just operating as a manager. It involves the social impact you have on those around you, and the ability to inspire and motivate them into action towards a shared goal.

There are many benefits to strengthening your leadership skills and qualities, such as being able to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, understand your company’s direction, and get the absolute best out of your team.

Thanks to a large number of resources within this area, you can begin your leader journey as early as today.

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