The word leadership carries a great deal of weight, but what (or who) do you think of when you hear the word leadership? Do you see a leader within politics? A manager at work? Do you see a friend or family member as a leader?
Now consider what qualities make them a good leader in your eyes. Interestingly, this simple exercise often tells us more about who we are as leaders than anything else - we tend to be attracted to qualities we have ourselves.
Leadership is not easily defined and can mean different things to different people. With this in mind, here we will look at leadership in its broadest sense, delving deeper into what it is, including different leadership styles. We’ll also look at the difference between a leader and a manager, how you can develop your leadership skills and how leadership coaching can help.
What is leadership?
People with leadership skills are able to build a vision of the future and encourage others to join them on their quest. Leaders can set the direction of a task, inspire those around them and work in a dynamic way.
Often when we talk about leaders and leadership qualities, we consider it in a workplace setting. Having strong leadership qualities can propel your career, whether you work for yourself or within an organisation. Here are some key traits of great leadership:
Building a vision of the future
Leaders look ahead and consider the long-term goals of the company and their team. They see how they want the future to look and understand how they can bring that vision to life. Having this vision provides companies and teams with a direction, allowing them to know when they have (or have not) achieved their goal.
As well as having a vision of the future, leaders are able to build upon this, considering the practicalities - what needs to be done to achieve this? It requires problem-solving, creativity and a desire to do something new. Leaders aren’t afraid of change and, therefore, are often the ones to lead change.
A good leader inspires others and leads by example, which can then have a ripple effect. If you aren't sure how to make a difference to your employee's opinions, start with knowing yourself better.
Of course, working towards a future vision generally means getting others on board. Whether that’s members of the company/team, or getting other people on board with an idea or solo business venture.
Leaders need to be able to motivate others to share their vision, encouraging them to join and help to create this shared vision. Something that helps here is the power of expertise. If the leader is considered an expert in what they do, they have more credibility and. therefore, people are more likely to follow and support.
Coaching others and building their skills
Within a team, leaders are great at supporting other members of the team and even coaching them to develop their skills. In the workplace, this helps with staff retention as team members are truly valued and able to contribute.
In order to develop a team, the leader needs to understand team dynamics, how people best work and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Regular training, offering feedback and reviewing performance can help with this.
Managing the way the vision will be delivered
This part taps into management skills. As well as having a vision for the future, leaders must be able to deliver on this vision. This means not only inspiring others to contribute but also managing the way it will be delivered. This can either be done by themselves or by a dedicated manager.
Leaders should also ensure they manage change - such as when things don’t go to plan, or the goalposts get moved - because change is inevitable. Ensuring this transition happens smoothly and in confidence is part of being a leader.
There are many different ways someone can show leadership, we call these different ways ‘leadership styles’. While there are many ideas of what different leadership styles are, below are some of the most common ones you are likely to come across.
Autocratic leadership centres around the power a leader has over their staff. Generally, those in lower positions within the team have little chance to speak up and make suggestions, even if they would be in the company’s best interest.
This style of leadership can be useful when quick decisions need to be made and when tasks require efficiency. The downsides, however, are that the team may not enjoy being treated in this way and it can lead to high staff turnover.
Democratic leaders include members of the team in their decision-making process. This way of working encourages high job satisfaction for the team, making it a motivational environment.
The downside to democratic leadership can be a slower decision-making process, though the results are often good. In crisis situations or when efficiency is key, other leadership styles may be preferable.
As a leader, it is imperative that you find a way of 'being' which is in harmony with your beliefs and values but also with those of your organisation.
Laissez-faire is a French phrase that means “leave it be”. This style of leadership involves leaving the team to work on their own. Leaders who adopt this style may provide their team with support, but don’t set deadlines and give their teams full freedom with how they spend their time.
If the leader monitors performance and offers regular reviews, this style can work well. If team members are ill-equipped, poorly-skilled and struggle to manage their time well, it can produce undesirable results.
People or relations-oriented leaders are focused on the development and organisation of their team. Everyone within the team is treated equally and there is often a great sense of team camaraderie. Leaders using this style ensure everyone in the team is OK and make themselves available when anyone needs advice.
The downside here is that some leaders could end up prioritising team development over tasks and projects.
The transaction element in this leadership style is that team members agree to obey their leader when they accept the position, they are then paid for their compliance. This approach can see leaders ‘punishing’ team members if they don’t work up to standard.
This may sound entirely negative, but there can be benefits to this approach. This style offers total transparency, so everyone knows what’s expected of them. It also rewards team members who are motivated by external rewards (such as compensation).
Considered one of the most positive leadership styles, transformational leaders expect the best from themselves and their team, inspiring everyone to do the same. This environment breeds productivity and high levels of engagement. With this style, leaders may benefit from being supported by people who pay attention to detail and processes.
The difference between a manager and a leader
‘Leader’ and ‘manager’ are words often used interchangeably within the business world. While managers are often leaders, there are subtle differences between the two and you certainly do not have to be a manager to be a leader, and indeed you can be a manager without being a leader. Here we’ll look at the differences between the two.
Innovation vs organisation
A leader will seek to innovate new ideas, spark creativity and raise energy within their team. A manager lacking in this trait may focus more on the organisation side of things, ensuring their team is organised and efficient, rather than thinking outside the box.
Trust vs control
Leaders build trust with their followers. They lead by example and have strong values. Honesty and integrity are big parts of this. Managers may rely on their authority instead, using control rather than trust to get what they need from their team.
‘What’ and ‘why’ vs ‘how’ and ‘when’
A leader may question authority or the status quo, asking big questions like ‘what’ and ‘why’ when those above them set tasks. Managers may not think like this, and instead are more interested in how their team can achieve what’s been asked and when.
Managers light a fire under people. Leaders light a fire in people.
- Kathy Austin
We’ve talked about what leadership is, different leadership styles and the differences between leaders and managers - but what skills do leaders have - and how can you develop those skills? Let’s take a look.
As well as being able to communicate well with their team, leaders should be able to effectively communicate with the whole company and third parties. Whether it’s in a one-to-one setting or a group presentation, being able to communicate in a clear manner is key.
How to develop your communication skills: A big part of communication is listening, so make sure you are taking the time to actively listen to those around you. Check-in regularly with your team and ensure everyone’s on the same page.
Changes are inevitable, whichever industry you’re in. Leaders should have a flexible approach and not become too rigid or stuck in one way of doing things. Being able to adapt to change, take on feedback and encourage followers to do the same is important.
How to become more flexible: Encourage regular feedback from your team to see if there are any areas they feel could benefit from change. Review processes regularly and ask, "Is this still working?"
If anyone takes too much on, they’ll get overwhelmed. This is why leaders are often masters of delegation. Noting the strengths and skills within their team allows for effective delegation that not only reduces the leader’s workload but also gives team members the opportunity to develop their skills and progress.
How to be better at delegation: Take the time to ask your team members how they want to develop and what their strengths are. When tasks and projects are allocated to you, take a look at your team based on how they want to develop and see if part of the task can be delegated.
Offering constructive and positive feedback is an important part of being a leader. Leaders should lookout for opportunities to give feedback, without micromanaging. Teaching team members to improve their work and be independent helps leaders delegate.
How to provide more feedback: If you don’t already, set up a certain time where you can provide feedback in a one-to-one setting, such as a monthly catch-up. When you notice a team member handling a task particularly well, let them know. If they’re struggling with something, have an honest discussion and see how you can help them develop their skills.
There aren’t always clear-cut answers and often leaders have to think creatively. Being able to think outside the box and push the odd boundary here and there is a key skill leaders should possess.
How to improve your creative thinking: Try picking up a creative hobby outside of work to get that part of your brain working. When challenges or ideas are presented to you, avoid immediately going to the safe/standard option. Try discussing ideas with your team and encourage creative sessions.
Trust encourages team members to believe in leaders. Knowing that a leader is honest and trustworthy makes them more likeable overall and people will want to follow them.
How to be more trustworthy: Being honest with your team is the best way to encourage trust. Talk about your experiences, communicate often and don’t shy away from big topics.
The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.
- Sheryl Sandberg
Work can be a stressful place at times, maintaining positivity and keeping morale high is a great leadership skill to have. When the environment is positive, team members are better able to handle stress and enjoy work.
How to encourage high morale: Talk about non-work topics with your team, ask how their weekends were and encourage socialising outside of work. Try and have the odd fun afternoon at work too, with team bonding exercises and a chance to get to know each other.
As a leader, being able to motivate your staff (beyond monetary incentives) is essential. Building their self-esteem, establishing their career goals and regular rewards for their hard work can all contribute towards this.
How to increase motivation in your team: Ensure your team share your vision for the future and try to get to know on an individual level (if possible) what your team’s aspirations are. Regular feedback sessions and one-to-ones are great ways to do this.
How leadership coaching can help
As we’ve explored, there are many skills at play when it comes to being a strong leader. Developing these alone is possible, but many find the support of a professional helpful - especially if there’s a particular area you’re struggling with.
A leadership coach will have the knowledge and expertise to help you develop your leadership skills, whether you’re working within an organisation or for yourself. Working with you to set goals and review your progress regularly, they’ll offer accountability and guidance to help you hone your skills.