How to be a good leader (or be better at it)
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What makes a good leader in today’s workplace? There is no simple answer, though plenty are trying to work it out.
Type ‘good leadership’ into a search engine, and you’ll find any number of books, videos or podcasts which aim to offer insight on how to lead teams, manage staff, inspire trust and ‘deliver’ on projects, profits or any other target.
Unsurprisingly, their advice is often contradictory but the difficulty is easy to understand.
Personality plays a large part in success and since everybody is unique – with all manner of reactions and responses to different types of leaders - what works well for one person can be a terrible turn-off for others.
Happily, many companies are now alert to this and have moved on from older styles of ‘top down’ leadership where decisions are imposed on staff and made without any opinion or feedback from employees.
Adept leaders now recognise the benefits of a wholly different way of working – being inclusive, adaptable and with greater focus on emotional intelligence.
This is thanks to the internet whose technology, industry advances and rapid growth triggered new vibrant, young companies which simply liked to ‘do things differently’.
That’s not to say older leadership styles have disappeared – instead, newer ones founded on trust, influence and persuasion are cropping up to rival them.
Here’s our five-point plan to finding out what works best for you…
1. Know yourself
If you’re leading a team, a little introspection can go a long way. Put yourself under the microscope: take online tests, read self-improvement books, find a mentor inside your company and ask for colleagues’ feedback. Self-reflection could help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and understand what makes you unique.
You’ll find it tricky to persuade others to get behind your vision if you lack awareness of your personality since it plays a major part of what you’re asking them to follow.
2. Be a specialist in your subject
The mantra of ‘fake it til you make it’ is outdated for business – and notoriously unproductive.
If you’re leading a team, be knowledgeable about what you do - people are often inspired by those they can learn from. To guide others confidently, be sure of your subject and display the expertise you have.
Of course, this isn’t an overnight fix. You’ll need to constantly read up on your professional subject and take training and relevant qualifications.
Always research courses carefully. Search for ‘training’ on the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development website for starter tips.
Check costs, drop-out rates and past student reviews to ensure quality (if you already work for a company, HR can help you here).
Attend industry seminars, and sign up to blogs and newsletters. Keep on learning too. All industries change at speed and there will always be a new topical trend to stay on top of.
3. Become an all-star communicator
To lead effectively, it’ll help to speak and write well at all levels – at ease chatting across all departments, from newbies and tech staff to customer services and chief executives.
Critically, it’s a two-way process that needs you to be an excellent listener too.
If language isn’t your strongest suit, don’t worry – we’ve got the basics covered below. These may seem blindingly obvious but too many leaders fail to get them right:
Learn to listen
Actively listen to what your team members tell you and you’ll better understand what drives them and how they need to be encouraged. Ask them ‘what works for you?’ – valuable insight to be able to inspire them.
In any chat or meeting, always give the person talking your undivided attention. Let them talk freely, try not to interject mid-flow and make them feel comfortable – the more relaxed they are, the more honest they’ll be with you.
Slow down to speak
Take time to choose your words – try to be measured and thoughtful in what you say, and avoid clichés and industry jargon which puts people off.
Think about your pitch (one that’s comfortable for you), volume, eye contact (try to keep it for as long as possible) and body language (don’t slouch). Suffer with nerves? There are techniques galore you can use – try this TED Idea article or watch speech-language pathologist Jackie Gartner-Schmidt in this TED Talk video.
Work on your ‘non-verbal’ skills
So-called ‘non-verbal’ communication includes your posture, body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and the way you look.
Body language in particular can give an awful lot away.
Discuss a serious topic with a smile on your face and you risk seeming inauthentic. Equally, a straight face for a light-hearted subject can cast you as rather humourless.
The next time you give a talk to colleagues, ask someone to film it and then watch it back so you can observe what everyone else sees.
If your body language clashes with what you’re trying to say – e.g. a rigid stance when talking about an exciting product launch - work on bringing the two into sync. When it comes to your appearance, there’s no textbook ‘leader look’ but aim to look professionally smart and feel at ease.
Choose your words carefully
Whatever you write - a speedy email, quick note or urgent help request - always picture the person it’s for. Keep it short and concise (to be easily digested), start with key points and try to finish with your call to action. Always run a spell check (errors can make you look very unprofessional) and – if it’s particularly important - ask a friend to read it for a second opinion.
4. Remember it's not a popularity contest
Many confuse leadership with popularity but this can be far from the truth.
Being in charge often means taking difficult decisions which can make you unpopular; it’s about being fair for everyone rather than being a favourite. The essence of an exemplary leader is that people are eager to follow you because they want to – not because they have to.
5. Put a premium on trust
Ask yourself what kind of person you trust in the workplace, and why. Your answer is the type of leader you’d follow, and should act as a guide to the type of characteristics needed to lead.
Many people will readily follow someone they trust and feel to be authentic, and respect is a key way to earn it.
Earning respect can start off with small steps – you keep promises, you’re reliable and deliver on time.
But it can grow quickly e.g. you readily delegate, give your team freedom and flexibility to make decisions, and give praise and fair feedback where due.
‘Lead by example’ may be an old adage but it applies more than ever in today’s workplace.
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