How do we determine what it means to be a leader? What are the qualities, and how do you demonstrate your leadership?
Traditionally, leadership was seen as very top-down, with CEOs and other executives in their corner office ivory towers. Leadership was telling people what to do, in a convincing way. It was about giving direction, and mostly, it was about leading in a non-collaborative fashion. Employees’ opinions were not considered important for input on company decisions or direction. Of course, there were boards of directors, executive committees, etc. so that one person wasn’t calling all the shots on their own, but leadership was traditionally reserved for a small group of people who had worked their way through the ranks. Leadership was about power.
Look at the way leadership has been portrayed in popular culture: from Dilbert to Horrible Bosses, or The Devil Wears Prada, the way people feel about such managers isn’t positive. In movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, dishonesty and ruthlessness are portrayed as positive traits, and the character Jordan Belfort is celebrated for his brazenness.
Leadership in the 21st century
This could not be further from the truth today. As Susan Scott says, “Trying to build leaders by regularly exposing them to your brilliance guarantees a lack of development.” People are increasingly looking for—and in need of—leadership that demonstrates soft skills.
It’s not so much about being the best at writing business plans (though that is an important skill), having a knack with numbers, being excellent at project management, or good at delegating tasks. It’s about understanding human behavior in the workplace.
Recent trends identify a pattern that points to this desire for an increase in the soft skills of leadership.
Defined by Robert K. Greenleaf as “the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first,” the idea is that the servant leader is always there to help and guide above all else. It’s quite altruistic; however, do not mistake the qualities of servant leadership for being a pushover or not standing up for yourself. Cheryl Williamson explains in this article a few ways she practices servant leadership.
David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around shows how great things can happen when a leader learns to trust and empower those around him or her to make decisions. In the workplace, it means showing others on your team you trust their judgment, sometimes even showing you know they have more expertise than you do, and that you’re comfortable with that. It’s giving people the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, and showing you believe they’re making the right decisions, so they no longer feel the need to seek approval from leadership. The responsibility and ownership are transferred from the leader to those around them, who are actually doing the job.
Leading from the heart
This could also be leading with empathy. Rather than looking at people through the lens of business, you look at them as humans. Understanding them and seeing their whole selves (as opposed to a job description) helps you as a leader to understand their needs and desires. As you develop or lead with more empathy, your people will be more motivated to trust and follow you, as well as being more invested in their work. As Mark Crowley, author of Lead from the Heart says, “I saw it proved out over and over again . . . when I led from my heart, my people enthusiastically followed.”
Five soft skills every leader should practice
Remember, everyone can be a leader at their own level, so this doesn’t only apply to people who have leadership roles. As a manager, you are a leader. But even in a nonmanagerial position, you have the opportunity to be one. If you want to become a leader like this, here are the top five soft skills you should start practicing immediately.
While it may seem obvious, learning to genuinely listen to your direct reports (and others) when they are speaking, is a key skill. Take time to hear what they have to say without wanting to answer right away or provide them with advice. This is also known as active listening. Learn to look beyond the words, and look for other cues such as body language, and use eye contact to be fully engaged in the conversation.
It’s difficult to be a leader, even for people who are naturally more skilled at it. This means it’s important to admit that you don’t always have the answer, and be comfortable with the unknown. Practice self-compassion, and be prepared to take on feedback. This supports the growth mindset you need. Self-compassion will also help with your direct reports, as you help them become comfortable with feedback to support their professional development.
It may seem like a basic skill, but it’s not something everyone has naturally. It can be practiced or nurtured, which will be helpful when coupled with skills like active listening. Empathy allows you to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand what they’re going through. For example, if your direct report tells you that he’s feeling overwhelmed with work, beyond assessing his workload, you can also understand how that might make him feel and the difficulties that come with that.
Vulnerability is difficult for everyone, but it’s also the best way to build strong relationships. As a leader, if you are able to be vulnerable and open up to others first, they will feel more inclined to open up to you, which creates a stronger sense of trust. You don’t have to lay out all your feelings and deepest fears on the table, but for example, you might openly express concern about a project to your team. This serves several purposes. First, you don’t try to hide your concern from them. Second, you enable them to help you find a solution. Third, you are showing you don’t have all the answers.
Honesty is closely tied to all of the above. By being vulnerable, you are being honest because you are sharing your true feelings with people. Honesty also helps to build trust with others and gives them the confidence to be honest with you as well. It should enable you to have more powerful conversations, for example during your one-on-one meetings.
Now that you know which skills you need to practice, you’ll know if you are getting better by asking for feedback on a regular basis. If you have a performance management platform, you can use it to submit a feedback request to your colleagues, or you can encourage your teammates to send you real-time feedback after a meeting or when a project ends.
Make sure you are regularly receiving input from your direct reports, your peers, and your superiors so you can identify strengths and weaknesses. Like anyone else, it’s important for you to outline a path for progression.
Seek out advice from others who have done it before you. Think of good managers you’ve had in the past, or turn to the people in your organization who you perceive are effective leaders. You might want to ask them to mentor you, or you can set up a less formal process where you can reach out whenever you have questions.
Now, get out there and practice your leadership skills.
Bas Kohnke is the founder and CEO of Impraise, the People Enablement Platform that allows you to utilize real-time feedback, check-ins, reviews, and goals to develop your people.