Being an effective leader in any organization can be tough. Sometimes it can feel as if you’re gnawing your way through a mountain, one teaspoon at a time. Other times it may feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose. Sure, being an effective leader takes know-how. But it also takes tenacity, grit. And lots of it.
As a leader, you know how it goes. One day you’re on cloud nine having just sealed the deal on a major business contract. The next day you’re battling with supply chain over a delay on a part for one of your products. And then there’s that pesky staffing problem that keeps rearing its ugly head every few days. It’s all par for the course for someone in a leadership position. But it’s how you handle these changes—in what may seem like utter chaos at times—that matters. And more importantly, it’s how you handle yourself in times of stress that leaves an impression on those around you.
At IronStrike, we help executives and other senior leaders hone their people skills and emotional intelligence through strategic leadership development. We’ve counseled many leaders over the years and, based on our experience, see six key characteristics that define an effective leader. To be sure, there are other qualities that define great leadership. But as communicators, we think these six—when mastered—differentiate the good from the exceptional leaders.
To inspire and motivate your team, you must first be inspired and motivated yourself. Those who have passion—or fire in their belly—for what they do will naturally display confidence. And the stronger a subject matter expert you are in your work, the more confident you should be in presenting and defending strategies you know will work.
But be aware, being confident in your abilities should never be confused with being arrogant. While a healthy ego can serve you well among your leadership peers, having an unnecessarily inflated ego or sense of entitlement can poke holes in your team. Your job is to find the fine line between confidence and humility and know your business inside and out. Because when you believe in yourself and the work you’re doing, others will believe in you too.
Staying cool as a cucumber in high-stress situations is one of the hardest things to master. For most people, the fight-or-flight response kicks in at the first hint of disagreement or discontent. However, we can say from years of experience that letting the situation get the better of you only makes matters worse.
This so-called “freaking out” in front of co-workers, managers and—worse—customers is a major business no-no. Instead, an effective leader should train his or her emotional intelligence muscles to stay cool and collected, regardless of the situation. While staff and managers may not immediately recognize how calm you are, you can bet they’ll notice if you’re not. It’s a domino effect. Your panic can trigger a chain reaction that causes everyone else’s fight-or-flight mechanism to go into high gear. And we all know where that leads—nowhere good. Maturity and patience in the workplace are key.
The ability to communicate effectively with others is, by far, the single most important characteristic of any effective leader. After all, your integrity rests on your ability to adequately articulate your vision and rally your troops in achieving the overall mission.
Leaders who participate in regular, consistent and transparent dialogue with their team enjoy higher levels of trust and engagement. Don’t forget that good communication is just as much, if not more, about listening as it is talking or writing. We encourage leaders to take time to listen, digest, reflect and then react. This means giving your teams your full, undivided attention. Being present and making a person feel as if he or she is the only person in the room. By making this connection, you tell them that their opinions count.
It’s also important to recognize that people from different generations receive and perceive information differently. This situation can be further complicated by technology that some embrace enthusiastically, while others buck. As a general rule, email is typically best for casual, day-to-day interactions. More formal communications, such as the introduction of a new policy or change in strategy, should be handled in face-to-face meetings. This should then be followed up in writing. Remember, too, that many work forces don’t have regular access to email because of the type of work they do (e.g., manufacturing environments). In these situations, it’s important to find other methods for effectively sharing information.
Keeping an open mind and an open line of communication can make a world of difference in the support you get not just from your team, but also your leadership.
At some point in life, we’ve all achieved a goal by leaning on the support of others, or “standing on someone else’s shoulders.” In business, it takes collaboration and cooperation to be successful. Think about it. No one likes a dictator who quashes every idea they ever have and plows full-steam ahead without regard to how the decision impacts others. Instead, we all appreciate leaders who take a more collaborative—or democratic—approach. When you approach things in a collaborative manner, it shows you value a person’s opinion and that you have confidence not only in yourself, but also in them.
Being willing and able to collaborate extends beyond your own peers and team. It can be of great value to you in working across functions within an organization, particularly if there are multiple locations or departments. It can also benefit you when working with external partners, such as manufacturers, suppliers and printers, among others. Collaboration allows you to expand your brain capacity by revealing new perspectives and generating innovative ideas that can lead to a better process, product or strategy. The input of others can ultimately help you make the best business decision.
“They may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” This statement made famous by church official Carl Beuhner in 1971 underscores the importance of being authentic in your actions and interactions with others. Some business leaders have a red-hot passion for their work, but lack the compassion needed to gain full support from their staff. These leaders tend to maneuver through business situations like a hot knife through butter—slicing their way toward a singular goal. But this all-or-nothing approach can have dangerous consequences. Not only does it leave those around you feeling bruised, it can also lead to you being labeled as a “bully” in the office.
So how can you tell when you’ve struck the right balance between passion and compassion? One clear sign is when your team’s desire to achieve a goal is as strong as yours. Magic happens when you can articulate your vision and set a course of action, and actually rally the troops into action. This happens only when you’re intentional. It takes a concerted effort to be genuine in how you approach your work and people. And in case you’re wondering, being compassionate at work doesn’t mean you’re weak. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Showing empathy builds trust, which in turn, earns you respect.
No one ever said being an effective leader was easy. In fact, most people underestimate how hard it can be. Over the years, we’ve found that an effective leader has tremendous courage—or what we like to call moxie. Remember: Making the right decision isn’t always easy or popular. Sometimes you have to dig deep and muster enough courage to defend an idea, strategy or culture change. And sometimes that means you’re going to be the bad guy or gal for a while. That’s okay. It’s how you manage the message—and yourself—that makes the difference. It’s all about striking a perfect balance between courage and all the other skills we’ve mentioned.
Courageous people also tend to have high standards. So, don’t be afraid to set the bar high. When you do, you communicate to others that nothing short of the best will do. Some will fail to launch, but you’d be surprised at how many others will rise to the challenge. Keep your team from mistakenly falling into the “comfortable” trap simply because they don’t have a good reason to go the extra mile. This all ties back to our earlier comment that people like to feel valued. People are often willing to put in the extra effort when they feel they have skin in the game. It’s your job as their fearless—or in this case, courageous—leader to help them see how their contributions matter.
BONUS: Best daily habits of an effective leader
Truly great leaders have a knack for bringing out the best not only in themselves, but in others. In consulting with leaders through the years, we’ve found that an effective leader practices these five habits every day.
- Connect to purpose: Leaders who understand, believe and can articulate the purpose—or reason to believe—behind a business decision are much more likely to be successful.
- Break conventional molds: Leaders who are willing to explore new ways of thinking and won’t settle for the “status quo” tend to find better, more efficient ways of doing business.
- Embrace mistakes: Leaders who aren’t afraid to fail are more likely to take meaningful risks. And with great risk can come great reward, as long as you learn from your mistakes along the way.
- Listen: Leaders who take time to really listen to what’s going on around them are generally those who have the trust and respect of their colleagues and teams. And remember, it’s more than just hearing. The next time you’re in a 1:1 meeting, give your colleague or team member your undivided attention and really listen.
- Play to strengths: Leaders who focus on strengths, not weaknesses, empower their team to take their game to a whole new level.
Being an effective leader is obviously more than just checking boxes on a list of characteristics. Sometimes, you’re going to nail it. Other times, not so much. The goal is to work a little each day on mastering these and other important traits to the best of your ability and then use what you’ve learned to develop your leadership style. In the end, you want to be the type of leader you—and others—respect. And there’s no better way to do this than by genuinely being a good person and doing what you say you’re going to do. Consistently putting these characteristics to work will help you grow and become the effective leader you are meant to be!
Ready to learn more about how you can be a more effective leader? Let’s chat.