Leadership. It’s fundamental to success, but how many of us really know what it means? How many of us have a clear, useful definition of what leadership actually is? There is no one-size-fits-all definition of leadership. What it means, how it is understood, and how it is applied can vary widely from industry to industry, company to company, and team to team.
Because of this, learning the leadership style that works best for your company and your career isn’t easy, but there are a few essential skills and characteristics that all effective leaders share.
Taking Your Industry’s Inventory
The first and most important aspect of learning to be an effective leader is realizing that, while there are some traits all good leaders share, these can’t always be applied in the same ways or with the same emphasis.
A leader in a tech firm, for example, is likely going to need strong engineering skills in order to lead the team effectively. On the other hand, while colleges and universities will need leaders who have a certain measure of technical proficiency, what’s going to matter most for these professionals are strong interpersonal skills, the ability to lead diverse personnel across multiple autonomous departments.
Likewise, leaders in manufacturing or commerce will need advanced skills in logistics and inventory management. Thus, if you want to be a strong leader, you have to begin by figuring out what approach, practices, and skills your team, your company, and your industry need the most from you.
No matter what your particular business or industry, sound leadership is all about relationships. Your effectiveness as a leader begins and ends with the people around you, from your employees and partners to your shareholders and clients.
Cultivating and maintaining strong professional relationships isn’t easy, however. It takes more than building an impressive professional portfolio, having more letters than the alphabet after your name, or knowing the technical details of your work backward and forward, inside and out.
None of these talents will help you lead if you don’t have the trust and respect of your employees and stakeholders. Often, this comes down to your ability to not only communicate clearly, effectively, and honestly, but to also listen just as effectively. The people you work with, whether your staff, partners, or customers, need to know you are true to your word, you know your stuff, and you legitimately care about them, the work, and the quality of their experience.
If You Don’t Stand For Something…
Let’s face it, if you’re going to be a leader in business, no matter what industry you’re in, then you have to care about the bottom line. After all, if your business is bleeding money, it’s not going to last very long. And that not only hurts you, but it also hurts your staff and stakeholders. We shouldn’t be so naïve to suggest that good leaders don’t or shouldn’t care about revenues. That’s just now how it works in the real world.
But if you’re going to be an effective leader, you have to stand for something beyond profits. You have to have a clear set of principles, a decided system of values, that guides your leadership practices and drives the norms and standards of your business. Effective leadership, in essence, depends on the ability to balance ethics with pragmatism, uniting your staff and stakeholders in a shared mission that serves both profits and principles.
Being the Leader Your Team Needs
One of the most important skills you can learn as a leader is how to identify and respond to your staff’s evolving needs. Research suggests that the most common leadership styles include the autocratic, the delegative, and the participatory.
The autocratic leader establishes clear guidelines and enforces rules. She issues orders and directs processes, and her team is expected to provide little, if any, input.
The delegative leader is far less hands-on, choosing instead to invest managerially and at least some decision-making power into the hands of trusted lieutenants.
The participatory leader gets down into the trenches with her team. Input from the entire staff is both welcome and expected, and the participatory leader can often be found working right alongside her subordinates, whether that means working basic customer service, clearing invoicing backlogs, or whatever else the team requires to do its job effectively.
What’s important to remember is that while one style may sound more appealing than the others, each has its particular strengths and weaknesses. Above all, it’s crucial not to be shackled to one particular leadership style. Your company’s needs, and the needs of your team, will evolve and change as different situations arise. Good leadership means being able to roll with the punches, recognizing exactly what your team needs from you to help them tackle the demands of the moment.
One day your team may need a participatory leader to work alongside them, boosting morale during a particularly busy working season. On another day, your company may be undergoing a significant transition and so your team will need you to be more autocratic in your leadership, making decisions and taking charge to help your company, and your staff, rediscover its sense of direction and purpose.
Or, your company may be innovating, exploring new products and services that are more in line with the expertise of your managers and supervisors. Delegating responsibilities to those with specialized skills can not only drive the success of the project, but it can also affirm for your entire staff that your leadership choices are meant to serve the team and the company, not your own ego or bank account.
Show Me the Money
While strong leadership is about more than profit-seeking and the protection of the bottom line, that doesn’t mean you can abandon your responsibility to keep the company solvent. A good leader must have a large degree of financial savvy, which includes understanding where, when, and how to procure funds, when necessary. Thus, developing your leadership skills means developing your expertise in the various forms of financial support your company might be eligible for, from business loans to crowdfunding to angel investment.
It also includes understanding the short term and long-range consequences of these resources for your business, both the potential positives and the potential negatives. So, in case you’re keeping track of the many hats you’ll have to wear as an effective business leader, we can add economist and financier to the list, alongside moral model, relationship builder, and amateur life coach.
The Permanence of Change
Change has always been a reality of doing business. However, the constancy of change has never been more apparent than it is today. Indeed, being an effective leader in an era of increasing globalization, rapid technological advancement, and profound market volatility means that you’re probably going to have to get used to steering your ship over increasingly choppy seas.
The best leaders are those who can not only learn to accept change, but embrace it, to thrive under it.
And that means looking to a future of work in which everything is subject to innovation, to renovation, and to reconfiguration. Processes that are performed by entire departments today may be completed by fewer than a half dozen machines tomorrow. Teams that are now housed onsite may soon be distributed to virtually every continent, connected by virtual communications and cloud-based systems. That also means that your workforce may soon be more diverse than you ever imagined.
So learning to be a strong leader is not just about developing the skills and strategies your business needs for today, it’s also about preparing to lead your company confidently into the future. You will be walking a tightrope, finding the right balance between man and machine, innovation and tradition, idealism and realism.
Effective leadership is a perpetually moving target. It means different things to different people. Leadership strategies that work well one day might turn out to be useless the next. The key to effective leadership is cultivating the tools you need to adapt to constantly changing conditions, to the endlessly evolving needs, expectations, and requirements of your staff, partners, shareholders, and clients. Learning to be a strong leader involves recognizing, first and foremost, the particular requirements of your industry, your company, and your team.
Beyond that, effective leadership also requires you to hone a set of skills common to all leaders. This includes the ability to develop and maintain strong relationships with the people you work with. It means cultivating a reputation for integrity, honesty, dependability, and uncompromising excellence.
Leadership also means unwavering dedication to principles outside of yourself. It means caring about your staff, partners, customers, and shareholders, and about the quality of work you do. It means developing the financial and technological expertise your company needs to endure and thrive. Above all, it means preparing to lead your company into the future, ensuring business excellence not only for today but for decades to come.
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