I’m often asked what makes a great leader. Leadership is made up of many components: emotional intelligence, confidence, competence, empathy, ability to inspire, decisiveness, excellent communication and so much more. One thing it isn’t is black and white. It’s also not true that either you have leadership skills or you don’t.
CEO of You, Inc.
I come from the mindset that everyone is born a leader, because whether you consciously think about it or not, you are the CEO of “You,” incorporated. When you become an adult, you are a leader of yourself, and every day, you make decisions on how to lead your life. Some people expand that leadership to eventually lead others and sometimes lead entire organizations, but whether you choose to step up or not, you are still a leader in your personal life.
The Leadership Trait Theory
There is a concept that has been around since the mid-1800s that argues leaders are born, not created. It asserts that leadership traits such as those mentioned above are innate rather than learned. It puts the emphasis on the person rather than the environment.
But around the 1940s, researcher Ralph Stogdill found that people could be leaders in some situations but not others. This contradicted the leadership trait theory and introduced leadership as being influenced by the environment.
Think back to high school or college. Were you a leader? Or were you a behind-the-scenes helper? Or did you step up as a leader only in certain situations?
A Leader on the Court
That’s my story. You might be surprised to learn that I am an introvert. That was certainly true in high school where I was an excellent student but also very quiet, so I would easily get overlooked. But when I stepped onto the basketball court, I became a leader to my teammates.
When I went to college, I avoided Speech 101 like the plague. It was a required course, and most students took it during their freshman year. I put it off until my senior year despite serious outcry from my counselors. I was terrified to stand up before a group and give a five minute speech.
Fast forward to today, where it is now part of my job to give speeches to thousands of people and do it confidently and comfortably. How did I gain that leadership skill? I committed to working on it. With lots of practice, I was able to build this performance skill because I knew I would need it for what I wanted to do in the corporate world and later for my own business.
But it’s definitely a role I put on, just like you would don a jacket for work. In other aspects of my life, I am a true introvert. I prefer quiet nights at home with my partner as opposed to large social events.
In my situation, a leadership trait was learned. Certainly other leadership traits can be learned, and I firmly believe you can grow into leadership. Everyone that has the motivation and is willing to put in the practice and repetition can become a good leader. But at some point, aptitude kicks in.
Here are the fundamental skills you need to have as you move up in leadership:
- Emotional Intelligence
This is the most important skill a leader can have. It gives you the nuance and understanding that goes beyond self. You are able to inspire others and create followership. You understand your role in influencing, expanding and pushing those who report to you to level up. You not only have the competence and understanding of your area of expertise, but you have the skillsets needed to drive an aligned, energized and engaged team.
One aspect of emotional intelligence is being able to not only think bigger picture where you see the situation broadly, but being able to dig into the details deeply. That’s a leader’s ability to zoom in and zoom out.
Someone who has refined their emotional intelligence takes into consideration others such as coordinating action through others, reading the room accurately, communicating effectively with others and handling complex situations elegantly. These skills all require the capacity to observe others and the implication of your conversations with them. You are performing through a bigger lens than just your own self.
The other bedrock for a leader is accountability, although I find it’s often missing. Leaders claim to implement accountability in their organizations, but often fall short in execution and even fail to realize it. In my virtual Accountability Mirror™ workshop, we focus on where the breakdowns start, which is usually when a leader initiates a request. Instead of focusing on how to hold others accountable, we identify performance gaps such as being blind to your own level of accountability. You can’t have accountability in your organization if you don’t model it yourself at an impeccable level.
3. Situational Leadership
This is when a leader grasps the situation in front of them and understands what type of leadership is needed to match that particular situation. For example, there are times where it is most effective to be a collaborative, consensus-driven leader and there are other times where it will be most effective for you to be direct and authoritative. Knowing when those moments occur and how to show up is powerful in building followership.
Unfortunately, most leaders give no thought to situational leadership or leadership style – they are just the leader that fits their personality type. But this is thoughtless or what I call lazy leadership. I hear it from my executive coaching clients all of the time, “This is just who I am.” If you only have one style of leadership, such as being direct, that’s akin to playing just one octave on a piano. You may be able to play that octave beautifully, but imagine how much more beautiful it would be to utilize all of the keys on the piano. A mature leader learns to play all of the keys on the piano, not just perfect one octave.
Nature vs Nurture
Leadership is nuanced and can operate within various theories. Everyone is born with different personality traits which can give us advantages in particular environments and roles. Extroverts are able to handle social settings and communication with confidence. But at the same time, an introvert can build those same skills and may even be more effective in intimate settings. There are certainly advantages to being an introverted leader.
While the leadership trait theory may seem antiquated, there are some takeaways from it that any leader can use for self-assessment and career advancement.
- Understand your Traits
Achieve a better understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are. We talk a lot about “blind spots” in executive coaching and how to identify these performance gaps in ourselves. Once you are aware of a gap, you can begin to work on improvement.
2. Assess your Leadership Abilities
Certain traits make certain people more desirable for certain positions. If you are considering a career move, understanding your abilities will help you determine whether a position is the right fit for you. This is especially important when moving from an individual contributor role to a leadership or management position. Often, people move up the corporate ladder without any management training and find it hard to transition to a position where others report to and look to you for guidance, development and motivation.
3. Identify Potential
A good leader is able to identify leadership possibilities around you and help grow those people to achieve their goals in your organization.
Leadership styles are constantly evolving, and there’s no right or wrong way to develop into leadership. Use the information here as building blocks to become a better leader.