Leadership skills are critical for implementing a company’s strategic initiatives. No business can thrive without people who can lead and manage teams. And as work transitions to fully remote and hybrid work models, soft skills like good communication, time management, and relationship building are more important than ever.
This article covers some of the essential skills required for effective leadership.
- Active listening
- Empathizing with others
- Delivering thoughtful feedback and welcoming feedback
- Problem solving
- Having an analytical mindset
- Being innovative
- Communicating well
- Being reliable
- Managing conflict
- Managing time
- The ability to delegate
- Being honest
- Developing emotional intelligence
- The ability to persuade others
- Being organized
- Setting healthy boundaries
- The ability to multitask
- Avoiding favoritism and being fair
- Being results oriented
- Building relationships
- Leading by example
- Maintaining a positive attitude
- Being creative
- Being humble
- Showing discipline
1. Active listening
Active listening is listening to another person, analyzing what you hear without bias, and responding in a way that promotes mutual understanding. As a leader, sharing what you know is important in the workplace, but learning what other team members know is also essential.
Listening in business environments improves worker engagement, which leads to better outcomes. Research shows that companies with the highest “sustainable engagement” scores had a 27% one-year operating margin versus just 10% for those companies with the lowest engagement scores.
Actively listening to others—from direct reports to superiors—builds trust and strengthens relationships within the team. Knowing that contributions are openly accepted also motivates workers and helps leaders make better, more informed decisions.
For example, at the end of a meeting, a leader practicing active listening may summarize contributions from the team and ask team members if the summary accurately reflects what was said.
Active listening involves:
- Listening to understand, not to reply
- Making eye contact and having an open physical posture
- Asking questions when things aren’t clear and listening to the answer
- Repeating back what’s said in different words to ensure it’s understood
- Not making assumptions and having an open mind
- Giving complete attention and having no distractions (no computer, phone, etc.)
- Allowing ample time so thoughts can be fully expressed
2. Empathizing with others
Empathy is the ability to recognize another person’s emotions and understand their point of view. Showing empathy helps individuals feel included and seen as part of a community. Empathy doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person—but it does mean you make an honest effort to understand their position.
Empathy is recognized as a valuable skill in personal relationships, and as leadership quality it’s been shown to help in professional environments. Great leaders can use empathy to help individuals feel valued—while also improving cohesion and morale among teams. Empathetic leadership can even enhance business outcomes.
A recent survey found that empathetic leaders have more innovative, engaged teams who are more likely to continue working for the company. Alternatively, workers who experience rudeness tend to have reduced performance and are more likely to leave a job.
For example, if a team member comes to a leader and expresses feelings of upset or frustration, it might seem enough to say, “I understand that you’re upset. Things are crazy around here. It’ll get better soon.”
Instead, an empathetic leader would ask more questions, be curious, and listen. This higher quality exchange provides more information for problem solving and strengthens bonds between colleagues.
Leaders demonstrate empathy by:
- Asking themselves how they would feel in the other person’s position
- Asking what actions they might take in someone else’s position
- Expressing concerns directly, listening with curiosity, and keeping an open mind and heart
3. Delivering thoughtful feedback and welcoming feedback
Embracing the exchange of feedback is a skill that helps leaders improve their team’s performance, as well as their own. This leadership skill encourages individual learning and professional growth by creating a safe environment for the exchange of ideas.
Feedback shouldn’t be exclusively corrective or always in the form of constructive criticism. It’s also an opportunity to offer recognition and appreciation for team members.
For example, after a recently completed project, a leader may wish to recognize individual efforts and ask the team for suggestions that might help improve the processes for future projects.
A leader gives feedback by:
- Providing specific instructions rather than generalized direction whenever possible
- Being respectful of others’ time and ideas
- Offering positive reinforcement and recognition
- Giving fair and honest criticism
- Following up on feedback at a later time
A leader can become better at receiving feedback by:
- Treating feedback as valuable and critical information, not criticism
- Keeping an open, curious, and positive mindset
- Taking deep breaths and reflecting before replying
- Using active listening skills like asking questions and repeating back to ensure comprehension
4. Problem solving
Even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry. But contrary to popular belief, leaders don’t always have the answers at-hand to solve problems. Instead, they have the tools to work through them.
Problem-solving is a process of identifying and defining problems, information gathering, analyzing, planning, assessing, and reassessing—all while keeping the interests of their customers, team members, and organization in mind.
Organizations both big and small faced some of their most significant challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. From restaurants that found ways to boost takeout and delivery services to companies keeping productivity high with remote work support, problem-solving leaders were undoubtedly critical to the success of the companies that survived.
Consider these tips for becoming a better problem solver.
- New problems often require creative solutions. Don’t get stuck when old ways stop working.
- Problems are inevitable. Don’t fear them; embrace the change and look for opportunities.
- Leaders don’t learn from success. Learn and grow from your mistakes, and don’t hide them.
- Don’t rush to find solutions. Take time to ensure you’ve correctly defined the problem and gathered the information you need.
5. Having an analytical mindset
To have an analytical mindset is to have the ability to recognize, analyze, and solve a problem. Employers look for analytical skills when seeking people for leadership roles. One survey found that nearly 72% of companies look for analytical skills when looking for new talent.
Organizations gain clear benefits when they hire individuals with these skills. For example, a shipping company might try to find ways to remain profitable in the face of increasing gas prices. An analytical leader might discover ways to consolidate routes, help create a tool to find the lowest gas prices more efficiently, or find another way to maintain a healthy margin.
To lead with an analytical mindset, you should:
- Gather available data and remove unnecessary information.
- If good data doesn’t exist, put tracking in place for future analysis.
- Avoid overanalyzing data and work on intuitive decision making for problems that need to be solved quickly.
- Recognize and eliminate personal biases as much as possible. Let the data guide you rather than seeking data to support your hypotheses.
6. Being innovative
The last few years have challenged leaders to reinvent how work gets done. The most innovative leadership teams showed adaptability and promptly adjusted to a fast-changing environment. Their solutions included enabling more remote work options, and those innovations have changed the landscape of work.
There are countless examples of innovative leaders who have defied the odds. Products like lightbulbs, sliced bread, X-ray machines, and many others would never have existed without visionary leadership.
The best leaders foster innovation in the workplace by:
- Focusing on learning and how it supports performance outcomes
- Listening and being open to ideas
- Actively encouraging team members to share ideas
- Following innovative leaders and watching for new ideas and trends
- Learning, adapting, and repeating
7. Communicating well
The ability to communicate is perhaps the most vital skill a leader can possess. Good communication isn’t simply the ability to speak clearly—it’s also the ability to listen and comprehend others. Leaders can help create an environment that fosters active communication, honesty, and transparency by modeling those behaviors for their teams.
With multiple time zones, information silos, and email overload, leaders must work consistently to improve communication in both virtual and real-world situations. Effective communication includes maintaining eye contact, having open body language, being mindful of personal space, active listening, and positivity.
Communication skills, like confirming understanding (e.g., “So what you’re saying is …” or “What you’re asking from me is …”), should also be used when sending emails, communicating over chat, or engaging over video calls.
Leaders can improve their communication skills by:
- Empathizing with others’ emotions and points of view
- Providing quick feedback whenever possible
- Clearly defining expectations to help workers focus their efforts
- Being transparent and encouraging with workers who are facing challenges
- Being aware of nonverbal signals like crossed arms or a lack of eye contact
- Actively listening, and including confirming questions to ensure complete understanding
8. Being reliable
Reliable leaders are the bedrock of a strong organization. Hiring managers look specifically for dependable contributors because they follow through on their work and help ensure goals and deadlines are met.
A reliable leader follows through when making promises to their team. They also trust and listen to their teams. They provide tools and support that help their teams achieve their goals while accomplishing their own.
A reliable leader also accepts fault—both their own and their team’s fault—and they don’t hide mistakes or sugarcoat things. Instead, they share fault and try to do better moving forward.
A leader can demonstrate reliability by:
- Communicating clearly and frequently with their team
- Developing a clear plan with achievable deadlines for their teams and supporting them in their efforts
- Making and keeping their own deadlines
- Staying positive and focused on the big picture, even when teams may be in the weeds
- Recognizing the efforts of team members throughout the process
- Being available to listen and support the team
9. Managing conflict
Conflict can happen when ideas, values, and opinions collide. Leaders apply conflict management skills when team members can’t resolve a problem themselves.
Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it often resolves issues that might continue if not addressed. For example, a lopsided workflow may leave one team member stretched beyond their limit, which impedes another’s ability to meet their individual goals. If never addressed, this may worsen future disputes.
Differences between team members won’t always lead to conflict. But when they do, successful leaders can find ways to resolve issues that leave all parties feeling heard and respected.
A leader effectively manages conflict in the workplace by:
- Responding calmly when others are upset
- Being patient, actively listening, and not jumping to conclusions
- Not letting conflict fester, but addressing it as soon as possible
- Setting fair and specific parameters when involved parties are heated
- Holding bad actors accountable with appropriate corrections when necessary
10. Managing time
Strong leaders have to find ways to manage their time to be successful. The best time managers focus their efforts on the most important and pressing tasks and avoid unnecessary or less time-critical tasks.
Effective time management for leaders involves:
- Setting priorities that will help their team achieve its goals
- Delegating responsibilities to capable team members
- Having an efficient meeting and scheduling strategy that doesn’t disrupt productivity
For example, a good time manager may set aside specific hours of the day for meetings to allow for a large block of time for concentrated productivity.
A leader demonstrates effective time management when:
11. The ability to delegate
“Be a leader, not a hero.” Knowing which tasks should be delegated and to whom is among the most challenging parts of delegation. Leaders need a clear understanding of the skill sets of each member of the team. They may also find that some team members have abilities that haven’t yet been utilized.
A leader should start the process of delegating by getting the team up to speed on the big picture, including timelines and goals. From there, look to match the talent with the tasks at hand. Once work is delegated, leaders can focus on their duties and leave the rest up to their team.
Throughout the project, leaders should resist the temptation to take on work that others can do and instead offer constructive feedback at periodic intervals.
A leader delegates fairly and effectively by:
- Identifying the strengths of team members and assigning work accordingly
- Being aware of a task’s difficult and not overburdening team members
- Clearly defining roles and expectations
- Providing resources that can help individuals do their jobs
- Creating milestones or incremental goals for feedback opportunities
- Trusting team members to do the tasks they’re assigned
12. Being honest
Honest leadership allows the workplace to feel confident and capable of achieving their goals. Transparent leadership leads to higher morale, performance, and even customer satisfaction.
For example, let’s say a marketing manager edits and approves the copy on a mailer that they didn’t realize had an expired coupon code. Rather than hiding the mistake or blaming the designer, the manager owns it and empowers the designer to work with another team member to correct the error.
Transparency and honesty improve communication and increase a leader’s ability to inspire and influence. Hiring managers look for honesty and trustworthiness when hiring for any position.
Great leadership demonstrates honesty by:
- Admitting to mistakes
- Challenging existing frameworks for newer, better solutions
- Keeping their word
- Being committed to understanding what is true for them
- Taking time to understand what is true for others
- Speaking up when something is amiss
13. Developing emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage your emotional state, as well as the emotional state of others. According to research by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 64% of companies that actively promote emotional intelligence agree that their company “offers a high degree of empowerment with clear decision rights, incentives, and risk tolerance.”
A leader demonstrates emotional intelligence by:
- Giving themselves time to think before responding
- Being empathetic and considering the perspective of others
- Being self-aware and understanding their own emotions
- Being compassionate and recognizing the emotional states of others
14. The ability to persuade others
Persuasive leaders have moved mountains and even changed the world. That’s why this skill is so highly sought after when hiring managers are looking for leadership experience.
Persuasive leaders start by building trust with those around them. They are often warm and engaging, and they must have genuine care and concern for the people they lead. Persuasive leaders recognize the importance of supporting their teams. They’ll go above and beyond to ensure their teams have what they need to get, and stay, on board with their vision.
Persuasive leaders are:
- Trustworthy and keep their word when making big promises
- Active listeners who frequently seek input
- Visible and available for support when needed
- Inclusive and welcoming to all
- Not pushy, aggressive, or manipulative
15. Being organized
More than simply having a tidy desk, organization means creating order out of chaos to achieve goals. An organized leader effectively manages their time and helps create time by minimizing confusion, eliminating duplicate efforts, and fairly delegating tasks.
The actions of organized leaders allow teams to get more done and stay on track with high-priority goals. For example, a well-organized leader can identify incremental goals for team members to help ensure essential projects remain on track over time.
A leader demonstrates organizational skills by:
- Mastering email, project management, and scheduling tools
- Considering AI options for automating simple tasks
- Knowing their limitations and delegating when necessary
16. Setting healthy boundaries
Great leaders maintain healthy boundaries with team members. Setting boundaries means establishing and following precedents, like not taking on work that should be delegated, not overcommitting when setting goals, and having a healthy work-life balance.
Leaders who demonstrate healthy boundaries for themselves also model good boundaries for their teams. For example, a leader who doesn’t respond to emails or phone calls outside work hours can empower their team members to unplug from work after hours.
A leader may set the following boundaries:
- Time and energy. Ensuring people respect their time and take it as they need.
- Material. Deciding which tools are shared and which belong to individuals.
- Physical. Respecting others’ personal space and ensuring others respect theirs.
- Emotional. Minimizing emotional dumping and avoiding inappropriate topics.
17. The ability to multitask
Multitasking is the ability to manage multiple projects at the same time. However, because rapidly shifting between two or more ongoing tasks at the same time is counterproductive, leaders will usually focus on one thing at a time, but juggle many things over a longer period of time.
Leaders who can create prioritized to-do lists, and focus on the most important things first, may find it easier to stay on track with their team’s goals.
A leader demonstrates multitasking skills by:
- Preparing a strategic to-do list to help keep them on track
- Prioritizing projects, completing the most critical projects first
- Taking periodic breaks
- Managing unwanted interruptions assertively and tactfully
18. Avoiding favoritism and being fair
A leader who plays favorites may unfairly distribute work, limit advancement opportunities for some team members, or offer more positive reinforcement or praise to specific individuals.
This behavior can quickly create resentment among those not benefiting from better treatment. Even when an individual benefits from favoritism, it can still have a negative effect on teams since the favorites may engage in self-sabotage to right the ship. To avoid bias, leaders should be sure to distribute benefits, praise, and criticism using transparent measures.
A leader demonstrates fairness by:
- Offering regular and consistent recognition of team members
- Being transparent when offering benefits and incentives
- Tracking and reviewing assignments to ensure fair distributions
- Recognizing actions when showing worker appreciation
19. Being results oriented
A results-oriented leader pays careful attention to outcomes rather than processes. Results-oriented leaders understand strategic thinking and know how to keep their focus on the bottom line. While leaders should also be empathetic in their interactions with teams, they must also focus on the bottom line.
Good leaders can utilize multiple skills and put their leadership abilities into action to deliver positive results for an organization. For example, a results-oriented leader might carefully track progress and establish specific goals.
A leader is results-oriented by:
- Setting specific goals and tracking progress
- Understanding the bottom line
- Encouraging team members with goals and incentives
20. Building relationships
No leader can do great things without a strong team. Leaders who are successful at relationship building can accomplish more when they enlist the assistance of capable followers. In fact, research shows that close to 50% of a worker’s engagement is related to the quality of the relationship with their supervisor.
Leaders must establish trust to create strong relationships with teams. Trust is a key driver in establishing long-term bonds. Leaders must also maintain consistent communication, support, and constructive feedback. Identifying achievable goals and setting their teams up for success are more ways to solidify strong relationships.
A leader fosters positive relationships by:
- Creating a culture of communication
- Showing empathy and sincerity with team members
- Praising and encouraging when appropriate
- Having team-building activities that make individuals feel welcomed and included
21. Leading by example
Mirroring behavior is hardwired into us. The behaviors and actions of those around us impact the choices we make.
Leaders who model positive behaviors, like showing up on time, keeping their word, and showing kindness and empathy, are walking the walk that teams can emulate. Additionally, leaders should take ownership of their mistakes, just as they hope their team members do.
Leading by example means:
- Keeping your word
- Following the same rules as are expected of the team
- Having accountability for your actions when you make mistakes
- Having transparent rules that you enforce equally
22. Maintaining a positive attitude
A positive attitude is helpful in life, and it may be even more helpful in the workplace. Responding positively even in the face of adversity can help inspire the team and turn a bad situation around when things go wrong—and there will always be a time when they do.
A positive leader uplifts their team by offering a safe and supportive working environment. Positive leaders understand that when they’re complaining, they’re not leading but instead offloading frustrations in an unproductive way. While venting can be cathartic, it should not happen at work.
Leaders can encourage positivity by:
- Avoiding venting and complaining in the workplace and casting attention on what is going right
- Attacking problems, not people
- Not neglecting their own needs and responsibilities
- Staying focused on the goal
- Appreciating their teams
- Being open-hearted and genuine in their interactions
23. Being creative
Creativity is a sought-after workplace skill because it can drive innovation inside an organization. Creative leaders can be transformative in developing new approaches to achieving goals or discovering new directions and opportunities.
You don’t have to be the most creative person to be a creative leader. In fact, it’s more important to foster your team’s creativity. If you’re the only person being creative on your team, you’ll likely find less time to innovate. But as a creativity cheerleader, you can multiply the creative impact.
A leader fosters creativity by:
- Being a champion for their team’s ideas
- Encouraging dialogue—a strong creative team may have different opinions, but conversation can make a good idea better in an encouraging environment
- Embracing failure
- Avoiding micromanaging
- Insisting on diversity—opt for diversified talent portfolios
24. Being humble
Humility may not be the first skill that comes to mind when thinking of leadership roles. But humble leaders tend to inspire loyalty, attract top talent, and be more influential than their seemingly more charismatic counterparts.
For example, a humble leader would be more apt to give credit to the team when things are successful and be the first to take responsibility when things go poorly.
A leader demonstrates humility by:
- Promoting the good work of others whenever possible
- Owning up to their mistakes
- Encouraging collaboration and teamwork
- Making promises they can keep
- Supporting team members with positive feedback
- Taking responsibility first and taking credit last
25. Showing discipline
Discipline is a critical skill for good leadership. Disciplined leaders keep their eyes on the long-term picture and avoid the pitfalls of attractive short-term gains. Their commitment to the big picture is a valuable asset that companies seek.
A disciplined leader establishes clear priorities, creates a detailed plan—including trackable milestones—and follows up to ensure milestones are met.
A leader shows discipline by:
- Setting goals and sticking to them
- Being punctual and prepared
- Having clear boundaries and enforcing them
- Focusing on projects that add value
The skills to seek for the long run
From active listening to discipline, organizations can benefit from these examples of leadership abilities and sought-after skills. Good leadership skills should be at the top of the list when hiring a supervisor or manager.
Upwork is a great resource for finding talented professionals with the leadership skills that drive success.
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