Countless books, movies, articles, and podcasts seek to uncover the secrets to becoming a good leader. But they so often fail to provide practical guidance.
Some focus on describing characteristics of leaders in large companies, like Steve Jobs of Apple or Mark Zuckerberg of Meta. Biographical character studies can be interesting; however, anecdotes about a business founder’s unique traits or fundamental motivations don’t explain what makes a good leader.
So, what makes a leader?
Maybe you are imagining a military commander barking orders. While military commanders are certainly leaders, this management style is not translatable to civilian life.
Military commanders use orders to manage their teams in life-or-death situations. The commander must be fully in charge. Service members who disobey orders can have catastrophic consequences for their unit, including damage to expensive equipment and loss of life.
In the civilian world, managers must take a much different approach to leadership.
In business, most employees are usually not bound to comply with their manager’s wishes via a contract. While they are responsible for certain tasks, the manager won’t detail every aspect of performing the duty. Instead, employees have some leeway in their performance.
Too much oversight will drag down an employee. As long as they meet the essential responsibilities of the job, they should be supported and allowed to grow. Employees who feel in charge of their work are more likely to stay with a company.
Managers have to take strategic action to get the most from their employees. Without appropriate leadership skills, they risk losing the focus and attention of their workers. Lost interest results in reduced productivity, which can have a very negative impact on the organization.
The best leaders exhibit the following soft skills.
Leaders have to understand their team members’ motivations. Some workers are energized by a desire to prove they’re skillful and knowledgeable. Others want to feel needed by their organization or supervisors. Some people use their workplace as a social outlet, while others have solid ambitions to become leaders themselves.
Good leaders get to know their people. They want to understand what makes them tick. Once they know what drives the worker, they can assign them to projects where they’ll be most successful.
For instance, consider a highly analytical employee. This person may not be a social butterfly, but they enjoy getting into the details of complex projects and solving issues. Such a worker would likely thrive with a project that required them to use their skills to solve problems for the company. In contrast, they might struggle in a client-facing position.
On the other hand, an employee who loves to talk and share with coworkers might be an effective HR manager or sales rep. Their skills are in communication, not analytics.
A manager who understands their employees’ skills is well-placed to put them in roles where they can make a difference and feel happy with their accomplishments.
Being a manager comes with some pitfalls. Some employees may be unwilling to accept leaders, especially if they don’t align with their expectations.
For instance, an older worker may resent a younger manager even if the manager is skilled and suited for leadership. They may believe that the younger leader doesn’t have the appropriate level of life experience to tell them what to do.
Those in management positions must understand that not all employees will accept their authority simply because of their titles. New managers will need to prove their authority in other ways.
Often, the best way for managers to prove their capabilities is by keeping some distance between themselves and their workers. They shouldn’t set out to become best friends with their subordinates. Instead, they must carefully balance their authority with understanding.
Keeping a balance involves the careful art of getting to know employees and understanding their skill sets without being overly friendly. While employees can form friendships with other workers, upsetting the balance between managers and employees isn’t appropriate and can lessen the leader’s authority.
Growth and development are essential to many employees’ job satisfaction. Employees who stagnate in a position are unlikely to be happy in their careers, and they will soon leave for greener pastures — or stay and bring the department down with them.
Leaders can encourage their workers to expand their skill sets through further certifications, online learning, and other tools. Acting as a mentor to promising employees can aid them in furthering their careers. In return, the employee will likely remember the manager who assisted them in developing their future.
However, leaders must keep in mind that some employees are content where they are. A solid worker who enjoys their job and does it well is worth their weight in gold. Keeping these employees happy with regular check-ins and appropriate raises is a good way to reduce turnover and ensure continuity.
Managers need to correct their employees when they make mistakes. However, leaders must be able to communicate their frustrations while still showing they are on the employee’s side. It should be an impersonal conversation that doesn’t put down the worker but ensures they remain committed to organizational goals and procedures.
There is no room for contempt in leadership. A manager who comes into their role believing that their subordinates are inferior to them cannot be a good leader. Leaders seek to make their workers perform effectively and at their best capacity; they don’t look down on them from a self-created pedestal.
While leadership books can provide some insight into developing good management skills, they sometimes miss the point of what leadership is. A leader can manifest their employee’s skills and encourage them to be successful with their responsibilities.
Leaders don’t use tricks or posturing to accomplish results. They can empathize with the employee, understand what drives them, and motivate them toward organizational goals.
Managers who understand the keys to outstanding leadership are often the most successful.
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