Tips to improve leadership skills
Table of contents
Leadership Tips 
Explaining and understanding the nature of good leadership is probably easier than practising it. Good leadership requires deep human qualities, beyond conventional notions of authority.
In the modern age good leaders are an enabling force, helping people and organizations to perform and develop, which implies that a sophisticated alignment be achieved - of people's needs, and the aims of the organization.
The traditional concept of a leader being the directing chief at the top of a hierachy is nowadays a very incomplete appreciation of what true leadership must be.
Effective leadership does not necessarily require great technical or intellectual capacity. These attributes might help, but they are not pivotal.
Good leadership in the modern age more importantly requires attitudes and behaviours which characterise and relate to humanity.
The concept of serving is fundamental to the leadership role. Good leadership involves serving the organization or group and the people within it. Ineffective leaders tend to invert this principle and consider merely that the leader must be served by the people. This faulty idea fosters the notion that leadership is as an opportunity to take: to acquire personal status, advantage, gain, etc., at the expense of others, which is grossly wrong. Leadership is instead an opportunity to give; to serve the organization, and crucially the people too. The modern notions of 'servant leader' and 'servant leadership' are attributed to Robert K Greenleaf (in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader). However the philosophy and concept of leadership being a serving function rather than one that is served, is very old indeed and found in ancient civilisations and religious writings.
Leadership is centrally concerned with people. Of course leadership involves decisions and actions relating to all sorts of other things, but leadership is special compared to any other role because of its unique responsibilty for people - i.e., the followers of the leader - in whatever context leadership is seen to operate.
Many capabilities in life are a matter of acquiring skills and knowledge and then applying them in a reliable way. Leadership is quite different. Good leadership demands emotional strengths and behavioural characteristics which can draw deeply on a leader's mental and spiritual reserves.
The leadership role is an inevitable reflection of people's needs and challenges in modern life. Leadership is therefore a profound concept, with increasingly complex implications, driven by an increasingly complex and fast-changing world.
Leadership and management are commonly seen as the same thing, but they are not. Leadership is also misunderstood to mean directing and instructing people and making important decisions on behalf of an organization. Effective leadership is much more than these.
Good leaders are followed chiefly because people trust and respect them, rather than the skills they possess. Leadership is about behaviour first, skills second.
This is a simple way to see how leadership is different to management:
- Management is mostly about processes.
- Leadership is mostly about behaviour.
We could extend this to say:
- Management relies heavily on tangible and measurable capabilities such as effective planning; the use of organizational systems; and the use of appropriate communication methods.
- Leadership involves many management skills, but generally as a secondary or background function of true leadership. Leadership instead relies most strongly on less tangible and less measurable things like trust, inspiration, attitude, decision-making, and personal character. These are not processes or skills or even necessarily the result of experience. They are facets of humanity, and are enabled mainly by the leader's character and especially his/her emotional reserves.
Another way to see leadership compared with management, is that leadership does not crucially depend on the type of management methods and processes a leaders uses; leadership instead primarily depends on the ways in which the leader uses management methods and processes.
Good leadership depends on attitudinal qualities, not management processes.
Humanity is a way to describe these qualities, because this reflects the leader's vital relationship with people.
Qualities critical for a leader's relationship with his/her people are quite different to conventional skills and processes:
People with these sort of behaviours and attitudes tend to attract followers. Followers are naturally drawn to people who exhibit strength and can inspire belief in others. These qualities tend to produce a charismatic effect. Charisma tends to result from effective leadership and the qualities which enable effective leadership. Charisma is by itself no guarantee of effective leadership.
Some people are born more naturally to leadership than others. Most people don't seek to be a leader, but many more people are able to lead, in one way or another and in one situation or another, than they realize.
People who want to be a leader can develop leadership ability. Leadership is not the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and educated.
Leadership is a matter of personal conviction and believing strongly in a cause or aim, whatever it is.
Leadership sometimes comes to people later in life, and this is no bad thing. Humanity tends to be a generational characteristic. There is no real obstacle to people who seek to become leaders if leadership is approached with proper integrity. Anyone can be a leader if he/she is suitably driven to a particular cause.
And many qualities of effective leadership, like confidence and charisma, continue to grow from experience in the leadership role. Even initially surprised modest leaders can become great ones, and sometimes the greatest ones.
Leadership can be performed with different styles. Some leaders have one style, which is right for certain situations and wrong for others. Some leaders can adapt and use different leadership styles for given situations.
Adaptability of style is an increasingly significant aspect of leadership, because the world is increasingly complex and dynamic. Adaptability stems from objectivity, which in turn stems from emotional security and emotional maturity. Again these strengths are not dependent on wealth or education, or skills or processes.
Good leaders typically have a keen understanding of relationships within quite large and complex systems and networks. This may be from an intuitive angle, or a technical/learned angle, or both.
A very useful way to explore this crucial aspect of leadership with respect to wider relationships and systems is offered by the Psychological Contract and how that theory relates to organizations and leadership.
Nudge theory is a powerful change-management methodology which emerged in the 2000s. It is very helpful in understanding how and why groups of people think the way they do, and how and why they behave and make decisions, which can be baffling to leaders. Nudge theory also offers some very clever ways to alter group behaviour/behavior, which are generally not taught or understood in the conventional leadership field.
People new to leadership (and supervision and management) often feel under pressure to lead in a particularly dominant way. Sometimes this pressure on a new leader to impose their authority on the team comes from above. Dominant leadership is rarely appropriate however, especially for mature teams. Misreading this situation, and attempting to be overly dominant, can then cause problems for a new leader. Resistance from the team becomes a problem, and a cycle of negative behaviours and reducing performance begins. As discussed in what is leadership, much of leadership is counter-intuitive, and is often more about serving than leading. Besides which, individuals and teams tend not to resist or push against something in which they have a strong involvement/ownership/sense of control. People tend to respond well to thanks, encouragement, recognition, inclusiveness, etc. Tough, overly dominant leadership gives teams a lot to push against and resist. It also prevents a sense of ownership and self-control among the people being led. And it also inhibits the positive rewards and incentives (thanks, recognition, encouragement, etc) vital for teams and individuals to cope with change, and to enjoy themselves. Leaders of course need to be able to make tough decisions when required, but most importantly leaders should concentrate on enabling the team to thrive, which is actually a 'serving' role, not the dominant 'leading' role commonly associated with leadership.
Today ethical leadership is more important than ever. The world is more transparent and connected than it has ever been. The actions and philosophies of organisations are scrutinised by the media and the general public as never before. This coincides with massively increased awareness and interest among people everywhere in corporate responsibility and the many related concepts, such as social and community responsibility. The modern leader needs to understand and aspire to leading people and achieving greatness in all these areas.
Philosophy (you could call it 'fundamental purpose') is the foundation on which to build strategy, management, operational activities, and pretty well everything else that happens in an organization.
Whatever the size of the organization, operational activities need to be reconcilable with a single congruent (fitting, harmonious) philosophy.
Executives, managers, staff, customers, suppliers, stakeholders, etc., need solid philosophical principles (another term would be a 'frame of reference') on which to base their expectations, decisions and actions. In a vast complex organization, leadership will be very challenging at the best of times due to reasons of size, diversity, political and public interest, etc. Having a conflicting philosophy dramatically increases these difficulties for everyone, not least the leader, because the frame of reference is confusing.
For leadership to work well, people (employees and interested outsiders) must be able to connect their expectations, aims and activities to a basic purpose or philosophy of the organization. This foundational philosophy should provide vital reference points for employees' decisions and actions - an increasingly significant factor in modern 'empowered' organizations. Seeing a clear philosophy and purpose is also essential for staff, customers and outsiders in assessing crucial organizational characteristics such as integrity, ethics, fairness, quality and performance. A clear philosophy is vital to the 'psychological contract' - whether stated or unstated (almost always unstated) - on which people (employees, customers or observers) tend to judge their relationships and transactions.
The BBC is an example (it's not the only one) of an organization which has a confusing organizational philosophy. At times it is inherently conflicting. For example: Who are its owners? Who are its customers? What are its priorities and obligations? Are its commercial operations a means to an end, or an end in themselves? Is its main aim to provide commercial mainstream entertainment, or non-commercial education and information? Is it a public service, or is it a commercial provider? Will it one day be privatised in part or whole? If so will this threaten me or benefit me? As an employee am I sharing in something, or being exploited? As a customer (if the description is apt) am I also an owner? Or am I funding somebody else's gravy train? What are the organization's obligations to the state and to government?
Given such uncertainties, not only is there a very unclear basic philosophy and purpose, but also, it's very difficult to achieve consistency for leadership messages to staff and customers. Also, how can staff and customers align their efforts and expectations with such confusing aims and principles?
The BBC is just an example. There are many organizations, large and small, with conflicting and confusing fundamental aims. The lesson is that philosophy - or underpinning purpose - is the foundation on which leadership (for strategy, management, motivation, everything) is built. If the foundation is not solid and viable, and is not totally congruent with what follows, then everything built onto it is prone to wobble, and at times can fall over completely.
Get the philosophy right - solid and in harmony with the activities - and the foundation is strong.
Again, the Psychological Contract provides a helpful perspective for aligning people and organizational philosopy.
This of course gives rise to the question of what to do if you find yourself leading a team or organization which lacks clarity of fundamental philosophy and purpose, and here lies an inescapable difference between managing and leading:
As a leader your responsibility extends beyond leading the people. True leadership also includes - as far as your situation allows - the responsibility to protect or refine fundamental purpose and philosophy.
Allegiance and leadership
Different leaders have different ideas about leadership. For example, see below Jack Welch's perspective, which even though quite modern compared to many leaders, is nevertheless based on quite traditional leadership principles.
First here is a deeper more philosophical view of effective modern leadership which addresses the foundations of effective leadership, rather than the styles and methods built on top, which are explained later.
A British government initiative surfaced in March 2008, which suggested that young people should swear an oath of allegiance to 'Queen and Country', seemingly as a means of improving national loyalty, identity, and allegiance.
While packaged as a suggestion to address 'disaffection' among young people, the idea was essentially concerned with leadership - or more precisely a failing leadership.
The idea was rightly and unanimously dismissed by all sensible commentators as foolhardy nonsense, but it does provide a wonderful perspective by which to examine and illustrate the actual important principles of leadership:
- Always, when leaders say that the people are not following, it's the leaders who are lost, not the people.
- Leaders get lost because of isolation, delusion, arrogance, plain stupidity, etc., but above all because they become obsessed with imposing their authority, instead of truly leading.
- Incidentally, leading is helping people achieve a shared vision, not telling people what to do.
- It is not possible for a leader to understand and lead people when the leader's head is high in the clouds or stuck firmly up his backside.
- That is to say - loyalty to leadership relies on the leader having a connection with and understanding of people's needs and wishes and possibilities. Solutions to leadership challenges do not lie in the leader's needs and wishes. Leadership solutions lie in the needs and wishes of the followers.
- The suggestion that loyalty and a following can be built by simply asking or forcing people to be loyal is not any basis for effective leadership.
- Prior to expecting anyone to follow, a leader first needs to demonstrate a vision and values worthy of a following.
- A given type of leadership inevitably attracts the same type of followers. Put another way, a leader cannot behave in any way that it asks its people not to.
- In other words, for people to embrace and follow modern compassionate, honest, ethical, peaceful, and fair principles, they must see these qualities demonstrated by their leadership.
- People are a lot cleverer than most leaders think.
- People have a much keener sense of truth than most leaders think.
- People quickly lose faith in a leader who behaves as if points 10 and 11 do not exist.
- People generally have the answers which elude the leaders - they just have better things to do than help the leader to lead - like getting on with their own lives.
- A leadership which screws up in a big way should come clean and admit their errors. People will generally forgive mistakes but they do not tolerate being treated like idiots by leaders.
- And on the question of mistakes, a mistake is an opportunity to be better, and to show remorse and a lesson learned. This is how civilisation progresses.
- A leader should be brave enough to talk when lesser people want to fight. Anyone can resort to threats and aggression. Being aggressive is not leading. It might have been a couple of thousand years ago, but it's not now. The nature of humankind and civilisation has become more 'civilised'. Leaders should enable and not obstruct this process.
However - always remember the philosophical platform - this ethical platform is not a technique or a process - it's the foundation on which all the techniques and methodologies are based.
Plan carefully, with your people where appropriate, how you will achieve your aims. You may have to redefine or develop your own new aims and priorities. Leadership can be daunting for many people simply because no-one else is issuing the aims. Leadership often means you have to create your own form of a blank sheet of paper, set and agree clear standards, and keep the right balance between 'doing' yourself and managing others 'to do'.
Build teams. Ensure you look after people and that communications and relationships are good. Select good people and help them to develop. Develop people via training and experience, particularly by agreeing objectives and responsibilities that will interest and stretch them, and always support people while they strive to improve and take on extra tasks. Follow the rules about delegation closely - this process is crucial. Ensure that your managers are applying the same principles. Good leadership principles must cascade down through the whole organisation. This means that if you are leading a large organisation you must check that the processes for managing, communicating and developing people are in place and working properly.
Communication is critical. Listen, consult, involve, explain why as well as what needs to be done.
Some leaders lead by example and are very 'hands on'; others are more distanced and let their people do it. Whatever - your example is paramount - the way you work and conduct yourself will be the most you can possibly expect from your people. If you set low standards you are to blame for low standards in your people.
"... Praise loudly, blame softly." (Catherine the Great). Follow this maxim.
If you seek one singlemost important behaviour that will rapidly earn you respect and trust among your people, this is it: Always give your people the credit for your achievements and successes. Never take the credit yourself - even if it's all down to you, which would be unlikely anyway. You must however take the blame and accept responsibility for any failings or mistakes that your people make. Never publicly blame another person for a failing. Their failing is your responsibility - true leadership means there is no hiding place.
Take time to listen to and really understand people. Walk the job. Ask and learn about what people do and think, and how they think improvements can be made.
Accentuate the positive. Express things in terms of what should be done, not what should not be done. If you accentuate the negative, people are more likely to veer towards it. Like the mother who left her five-year-old for a minute unsupervised in the kitchen, saying as she left the room, "...don't you go putting those beans up your nose..."
Have faith in people to do great things - given space and air and time, everyone can achieve more than they hope for. Provide people with relevant interesting opportunities, with proper measures and rewards and they will more than repay your faith.
Take difficult decisions bravely, and be truthful and sensitive when you implement them.
Constantly seek to learn from the people around you - they will teach you more about yourself than anything else. They will also tell you 90% of what you need to know to achieve your business goals.
Embrace change, but not for change's sake. Begin to plan your own succession as soon as you take up your new post, and in this regard, ensure that the only promises you ever make are those that you can guarantee to deliver.
Leadership skills are based on leadership behaviour. Skills alone do not make leaders - style and behaviour do. If you are interested in leadership training and development - start with leadership behaviour.
The growing awareness and demand for idealist principles in leadership are increasing the emphasis (in terms of leadership characteristics) on business ethics, corporate responsibility, emotional maturity, personal integrity, and what is popularly now known as the 'triple bottom line' (abbreviated to TBL or 3BL, representing 'profit, people, planet').
For many people (staff, customers, suppliers, investors, commentators, visionaries, etc) these are becoming the most significant areas of attitude/behaviour/appreciation required in modern business and organisational leaders.
3BL (triple bottom line - profit, people, planet) also provides an excellent multi-dimensional framework for explaining, developing and assessing leadership potential and capability, and also links strongly with psychology aspects, for instance psychometric (personality testing) features in leadership selection and development methods. Each of us is more naturally inclined to one or the other (profit, people, planet) by virtue of our personality.
Much debate persists as to the validity of 'triple bottom line accounting', since standards and measures are some way from being clearly defined and agreed. This does not reduce the relevance of the concept, nor the growing public awareness of it, which effectively and continuously re-shapes markets and therefore corporate behaviour. Accordingly leaders need to understand and respond to such huge attitudinal trends, whether they can be reliably accounted for or not at the moment.
Adaptability and vision - as might be demonstrated via project development scenarios or tasks - especially involving modern communications and knowledge technologies - are also critical for certain leadership roles, and provide unlimited scope for leadership development processes, methods and activities.
Cultural diversity is another topical and very relevant area requiring leadership involvement, if not mastery. Large organisations particularly must recognise that the market-place, in terms of staff, customers and suppliers, is truly global now, and leaders must be able to function and appreciate and adapt to all aspects of cultural diversification. A leader who fails to relate culturally well and widely and openly inevitably condemns the entire organisation to adopt the same narrow focus and bias exhibited by the leader.
Bear in mind that different leadership jobs (and chairman) require different types of leaders - Churchill was fine for war but not good for peacetime re-building. There's a big difference between short-term return on investment versus long-term change. Each warrants a different type of leadership style, and actually very few leaders are able to adapt from one to the other.
If it's not clear already, leadership is without doubt mostly about behaviour, especially towards others. People who strive for these things generally come to be regarded and respected as a leader by their people:
- Integrity - the most important requirement; without it everything else is for nothing.
- Having an effective appreciation and approach towards corporate responsibility, (Triple Bottom Line, Fair Trade, etc), so that the need to make profit is balanced with wider social and environmental responsibilities.
- Being very grown-up - never getting emotionally negative with people - no shouting or ranting, even if you feel very upset or angry.
- Leading by example - always be seen to be working harder and more determinedly than anyone else.
- Helping alongside your people when they need it.
- Fairness - treating everyone equally and on merit.
- Being firm and clear in dealing with bad or unethical behaviour.
- Listening to and really understanding people, and show them that you understand (this doesn't mean you have to agree with everyone - understanding is different to agreeing).
- Always taking the responsibility and blame for your people's mistakes.
- Always giving your people the credit for your successes.
- Never self-promoting.
- Backing-up and supporting your people.
- Being decisive - even if the decision is to delegate or do nothing if appropriate - but be seen to be making fair and balanced decisions.
- Asking for people's views, but remain neutral and objective.
- Being honest but sensitive in the way that you give bad news or criticism.
- Always doing what you say you will do - keeping your promises.
- Working hard to become expert at what you do technically, and at understanding your people's technical abilities and challenges.
- Encouraging your people to grow, to learn and to take on as much as they want to, at a pace they can handle.
- Always accentuating the positive (say 'do it like this', not 'don't do it like that').
- Smiling and encouraging others to be happy and enjoy themselves.
- Relaxing - breaking down the barriers and the leadership awe - and giving your people and yourself time to get to know and respect each other.
- Taking notes and keeping good records.
- Planning and prioritising.
- Managing your time well and helping others to do so too.
- Involving your people in your thinking and especially in managing change.
- Reading good books, and taking advice from good people, to help develop your own understanding of yourself, and particularly of other people's weaknesses.
- Achieve the company tasks and objectives, while maintaining your integrity, the trust of your people, are a balancing the corporate aims with the needs of the world beyond.
Many articles appear in the press and trade journals about leadership; look out for them, they can teach you a lot.
Newspaper articles - particularly those that appear in the serious press - about leadership and management, organizational and business culture, are an excellent source of ideas, examples and references for developing leadership.
A journalist could have spent a week researching the subject, talking to leading business leaders, academics and writers, and preparing useful statistics. This is valuable material. Learn from it, use it and keep it, because finding specific detail like this is usually quite difficult.
Serious relevant articles in the newspapers, trade press, or online equivalent, cost little or nothing, and yet they can be invaluable in developing your own ideas about leadership, and in providing compelling justification to organizations and managers for the need to adopt new ideas and different approach to leadership development.
Particularly powerful are articles which describe corporate failings, many with huge liabilities, arising from poor leadership behaviour and decisions, and which appear in the news virtually every week. Recent history is also littered with all sorts of corporate disasters and scandals, and while these high-profile examples are of a grander scale than usually applies in typical organisations, the same principles apply - an organisation is only as good as its leadership - at all levels.
Business disasters and failures - be their natural environmental, financial, safety, commercial or people-related - are invariably traceable back to a failure in leadership, and so any boardroom that says "That sort of thing wouldn't happen to us.." or "Our managers all know how to lead without being taught.." is probably riding for a fall.
Finding specific examples of cost and return on investment relating to leadership development is not easy (measuring leadership 'cause and effect' is not as simple as more tangible business elements), which is why it's useful to keep any such articles when you happen to see them.
Certain leadership development organisations are sometimes able to provide ROI justification and/or case studies, which is another possible source of evidence for reports and justification studies. Given the growing significance of corporate ethics and responsibility, we can expect to see increasing ROI data relating to 'Triple Bottom Line' and 'Corporate Responsibility'.