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 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, and crucially how you can develop your leadership skills.
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 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 doing to achieve this? It requires problem-solving, creativity and a desire to do something new. Some companies can fall into a rut of doing what they know works. Leaders aren’t afraid of change, and therefore are often the ones to lead change.
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 other people 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. When things don’t go to plan, or the goal posts get moved - change is inevitable. Ensuring this transition happens smoothly and in confidence is part of being a leader.
Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flow charts. It is about one life influencing another.
- John C. Maxwell.
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 a high staff turnover.
Autocratic leadership is best used in crisis situations when a decision needs to made quickly. The military is a good example of where this style is suited - the leaders can make quick, efficient decisions, allowing the troops to focus on performing their assigned tasks.
Those who use a bureaucratic leadership style like to follow rules and do everything ‘by the book’. They make sure everyone in their team follows procedure closely. In industries where attention to detail and procedure are necessary (such as factories or companies working with large sums of money), this style is useful. It can be less useful in creative fields where a sense of flexibility and innovation are required.
Someone with a charismatic leadership style motivates their teams, however, their intention tends to be focused on themselves. They may also not particularly want to change things within the company. They may believe in themselves more than they believe in their team. This can lead to little delegation, causing problems if the leader leaves the company.
Democratic leaders include members of the team in their decision-making process. While they will make the final decision, team members are actively involved in projects and decision making. This way of working encourages high job satisfaction for the team, making it a motivational environment.
The downside to this style 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.
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.
Servant leadership was a term coined in the 1970s by Robert Greenleaf and is used to describe someone who is not formally recognised as a leader. They could be at any level within the company, but by meeting the needs of the team can be described as servant leaders.
People who exhibit this style tend to lead by example and may also employ a democratic style, getting everyone involved. They tend to ‘lead from behind’, meaning they avoid taking credit and allow the team to get recognition as a whole.
A leader is a dealer in hope
Leaders who adopt this style focus solely on getting the task done and can be autocratic in their approach. Deadlines will be met however, and this style can help teams who struggle to manage their time. Because leaders with this approach rarely consider the wellbeing of their team, staff motivation and retention can be a problem.
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.
Managers - what do they do?
Managers are those responsible for planning, organising and running certain teams/functions within a company. Most managers are also leaders, but this only happens when they are able to do their job of managing while using leadership skills like communication, motivation and guidance.
This can be quite the task and therefore, not all managers can be considered leaders. Some members of the team may only follow a manager because of their job title.
The duties of a manager are generally outlined in their job description, with their main objective being to meet the goals of the company. The welfare and development of their team may or may not be taken into consideration. Managers take responsibility for their own actions and of those within their team.
Key traits of a manager
Here are some of the key traits you’re likely to see in managers:
Able to build and execute a vision. Managers should be able to break down an overarching vision into actionable steps for their teams to follow.
Able to direct others. A manager will be responsible for all efforts from their team, so need to be able to direct them on what needs doing as well as anticipating needs if changes are required.
Able to manage processes. As well as establishing processes, standards and operational processes, managers should be able to manage these.
Able to cater to the needs of their team. Managers should listen to their team and involve them in some decision making processes.
Leaders - what do they do?
The main difference between leaders and managers is that a leader doesn’t have to hold a management position in order to be a leader. Anyone at any level can develop and exhibit leadership skills.
Leaders tend to be followed because of the way they behave and their personality. A leader will invest into projects personally and with a great deal of dedication. Leaders are concerned with the wellbeing of their ‘followers’. They want them to reach success in their goals (which may not be the same goals as the company).
When someone shows leadership skills, people follow them because of this - not because of their job title. Leaders often challenge the norm and inspire positive change within a company.
Key traits of a leader
Some of the traits of a leader will naturally overlap with those of a manager. Here are some of the key traits you’ll see in a great leader.
Having vision. Much like a manager, a leader must be able to build a vision of where they want to go and share this vision with their followers.
Being inspirational. This is a natural character trait of leaders. They are able to inspire others, helping their followers understand how their roles fit into the wider picture within a company.
Honesty. Leaders are often able to build a great deal of trust between themselves and their followers. Being honest and maintaining integrity is key for building trust.
Happy to challenge. This is a trait that is not always shared by managers. Leaders are happy to suggest and encourage change within a company.
Below are some of the most striking differences between leaders and managers. This may help you if you’re a manager and are wondering how to employ more leadership skills.
There is a difference between being a leader and being a boss. Both are based on authority. A boss demands blind obedience; a leader earns his authority through understanding and trust.
- Klaus Balkenhol.
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, however, may focus more on the organisation side of things. Ensuring their team are 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.
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. Try introducing Monday huddles, where your team get together to discuss what they’re working on that week.
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 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. This involves giving up a sense of control which can be tough - but, remember that it will allow you time to focus on more big-picture tasks.
When a leader is committed and dedicated to their job, it shines through and encourages their team to follow suit. Commitment looks different depending on your role - for some, it may mean putting in extra hours during a busy period, for others, it may mean showing up to office social events.
How to encourage commitment: Having a passion for your role naturally breeds commitment, so if you don’t feel committed, ask yourself what’s missing. Showing your dedication and helping your team find their own passion will encourage commitment from everyone.
Offering constructive and positive feedback is an important part of being a leader. Leaders should look out 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.
If you manage a team, you will take responsibility not only for your actions, but for the actions of your team. Being able to take this responsibility rather than pointing the finger and blaming others is a skill leaders develop.
How to handle responsibility: When mistakes happen it can be easy to get defensive and blame others. Try to slow down your reactions when this happens. If it’s been delivered in an email, allow it to process for a while before responding. If it’s in a meeting, take some deep breaths and pause before speaking. Accept mistakes and failures, then devise solutions to ensure they don’t happen again.
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. Of course there is a fine line here between being honest and talking about confidential topics, ensure to maintain a level of professionalism.
Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.
- Patrick Lencioni.
Work can be a stressful place at times, maintaining positivity and keeping the 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 positivity: 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.
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