Leadership skills. Successful people have them. You want them. But if you’re just starting out or looking to move up to the next level, what are they, exactly, and how do you acquire said skills?
Saying you’re a leader is all well and good, but you need to be able to demonstrate how you’ve led and instill a level of trust in people. The good news is that it’s never too early (or too late) to start working on your leadership skills.
10 Leadership Skills You Need
Let's start by determining a list of skills that translate to almost any professional situation and apply no matter what your position. If you can cultivate and grow the following 10 skills, you're well on your way to not having to fake it 'til you make it–you actually can and will eventually lead.
1. Project Management
Being a leader means being able to see (and implement) the big picture, so project management skills are crucial. Whatever the project is, it’s important to show your control and ability to keep things moving forward at every stage.
2. Ability to Delegate
Any leader who tries to do everything him- or herself is probably gearing up for a belly flop. Part of leading well means delegating well, and making sure that tasks are going to people who can complete them correctly and on time. Part of that is trusting colleagues to do what they need to do, which can feel like a big leap when our instincts are to trust ourselves first.
Knowing what to hold and what to let go is a major part of leadership. It’s about finding the best team and methods to get the job done, not showing off how much you can take on before you drop.
It’s not just about you trusting colleagues; they also have to trust you. That’s not going to happen if you have a history of dishonesty or shadiness at work. If you cut corners or throw people under the bus, the people around you will feel free to do the same, not to mention your reputation will suffer. According to Tanya Prive at Forbes, “Your business and its employees are a reflection of yourself, and if you make honest and ethical behavior a key value, your team will follow suit.”
Good leaders are good at communication going both ways. They can listen to colleagues and experts to see what’s needed, process those needs into a coherent plan of action, and let everyone involved know. Being able to communicate clearly and efficiently is a must—in person and in writing.
5. Risk Management
This means being able to identify, evaluate, and handle risks and potential outcomes. This kind of forward thinking shows a maturity, and can prevent you from charging head-first into action without understanding potential consequences.
6. Ability to Work with Others
A leader without a team is basically a one-person band. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not going to sound super great. Good leaders know how to work with different kinds of people without letting personality clashes, conflicts in ideas, etc. derail the work at hand. Diplomatic skills will always come in handy in the workplace, and the person who brokers peace
7. Adaptability/Problem Solving
Some things will go perfectly according to plan. Most things won’t. Basically, this is being able to think on your feet, and stay calm when challenges pop up out of nowhere and hit you in the face. Part of leading is coming up with solutions to challenges (seen or unforeseen) and keeping yourself and everyone around you on track no matter what.
If you don’t have confidence in yourself and your ability to get the job done, it’s likely no one else will, either. Confidence also means being able to speak up with constructive comments, or give feedback while feeling comfortable about your level of expertise and experience.
We typically think of negotiation as something you do when you ask for a raise, or get a new job offer. Really, these skills are in use every day—it can be as simple as managing expectations for a client or colleague, or setting your own priorities. Being able to say, “okay, I can do X, but I’ll need Y” is a very important skill to have.
A big part of leadership is stepping up and saying, “this didn’t go well. Here’s why, and here’s how I will improve next time.” Owning up to your role in the process, even when things are going wrong, is a very important hallmark of someone who leads, versus someone who just bosses people around (and disappears when it’s time to fix things).
You can keep breaking these down into even more granular skills and skill sets, but these 10 skill areas are part of the core leadership package.
5 Ways to Build Leadership Skills
Now that you know the kinds of skills you need to start building your leadership credentials, how does one go about doing that? True, a lot of these things build up through basic experience—trial and error, lessons learned. But you can also take proactive measures to start growing in these areas sooner than later. Let’s look at five ways you can do this.
1. Know your leadership style.
I think we all believe we’re the “tough but fair” leader, right? Churchillian, with dashes of Lincoln and Danaerys Targaryen thrown in? Better to know for sure. Like with general career assessments, there are a variety of quizzes you can take to get a sense of what your leadership personality is.
- Leadership IQ
- What Sort of Leader Are You? (SkillsYouNeed)
- Assessment: What’s Your Leadership Style? (Harvard Business Review)
Once you know where your leadership strengths already are, you can really target your skill-building to start bulking up the areas where you could use a little work.
2. Be passionate about what you do.
This doesn’t mean that you have to change careers to do something you love, but you should always be able to find something in your job to be passionate about. When you’re excited about what you’re working on, that will help with confidence and focus, and can spread to those around you. Being engaged in the process and the outcome also attracts the best in those around you, too, which ups everyone’s game.
3. Communicate the heck out of everything.
If you’re a strong writer but not a great speaker, find a Toastmasters or public speaking class near you. If you dread making presentations, start working PowerPoints into some low-pressure meetings. If you’re great at coming up with a plan in person, but find yourself forgetting details later, start following up with detailed notes (including next steps) right after you leave a conversation or meeting.
If you don’t fully understand something, don’t be shy about asking for clarification, and repeating it back to the person just to make sure (“just so I’m clear, these are our next steps, right?”). It’s not a sign of weakness or incompetence to ask for a quick recap. Rather, it not only shows that you’re listening, but also that you’re understanding and processing as well.
4. Be a leader outside of work as well.
You can never go wrong with volunteering, especially for a cause or organization you feel strongly about. They’re happy to have your help, and if you’re engaged and passionate about the work (see #2), it’s an easy way to start building confidence and experience. Every community has a wealth of opportunities, but if you need help finding a good volunteering match for your interests, location, and schedule, these volunteer match services are great:
Advocacy and volunteer work are a great way to build communication skills, time management skills, operational skills (especially if you’re involved in administration, budgeting, or overseeing), and working-with-others skills, without the pressure of affecting your work performance.
5. Learn from the experts.
Leadership training is a thing, because no one starts out with a full set of leadership skills. Experience is an important part, of course, but so is the mindset and knowledge base—and both of those can be learned fairly quickly. One way to jumpstart your leadership skills is to take courses. You can take these online, so it fits in with your already-busy life. Some good resources for these types of classes:
Classes like these give you instant access to experts and concepts that can help you start thinking and acting like a leader, no matter where you are in your career at the moment. For those of us not lucky enough to have Jack Donaghy as a mentor, the Internet gives us plenty of access to resources that can start bridging that skills gap.
You may have heard the phrase “natural born leader,” but really, the best leaders are the ones who work hard to get where they are, with the skills and knowledge they pick up along the way. And building those skills is a process you can follow no matter how junior your role is, or how your company is structured—it’s about you, not about your job title. Go forth and start leading!
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