Entrepreneurs, whether they start with strong leadership skills or not, must know how to lead a team effectively. If you weren’t born with the skills and traits of a leader – and let’s face it; few of us were – this reality can be tough to accept.
You might not have a team to lead yet. You might be in the beginning stages of hiring a freelancer or two for the occasional task you’re unable, unwilling, or uninterested in completing yourself. Or you might have a full staff of employees that you’re struggling to manage well.
Wherever you’re starting, the good news is that being a leader is a learnable skill. In fact, one of the most important qualities of a great leader is a willingness to learn.
If you’re among the vast majority of people who weren’t “born with it,” what skills and personality traits can you work on to become a successful leader?
There are few things that will tank a team’s willingness to follow faster than broken promises. This affects every aspect of your life, far beyond your business. Whether intentional or not, any time you go back on your word, you lose credibility.
This is something you will need to have in mind before you ever make a commitment. It is about more than just your intentions – most everyone has made a promise with the best of intentions, only to break it later when they realize that they just aren’t able to do what they planned to do.
To be a leader who people want to follow, you must do everything you can to prevent this. That means knowing your limitations. Challenging yourself is good, but once you’ve committed to doing something, you no longer have a choice. Get it done, no matter what.
You’re familiar with the “golden rule” – treat others as you want to be treated. You might have heard what’s often called the “platinum rule” – treat others as they want to be treated. These are both great philosophies to follow in life.
When leading a team in business, though, an even better rule to abide by is to treat your team the way you want your customers to be treated.
Your team looks to you as an example. How you treat them is what they see as the model of how you expect them to behave toward each other and toward your patrons. They probably don’t even recognize that they are modeling your behavior, which makes it all-the-more important that you live up to your own expectations.
Treating your team well is not just about modeling the behavior you expect. To become a truly exceptional leader, you must genuinely care about the people you lead. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” – this quote is most commonly attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, and it is especially true in business.
That means listening to people’s input. It means respecting their ideas and opinions, even when you disagree. It means appreciating their work, and showing it.
It also means listening to suggestions. While yours is the final decision, the people you lead often have great ideas. Be willing to hear them out. And if one of your people has a better idea than yours, acknowledge that and act on it. Even if you ultimately decide not to take their suggestions, let them know that their input is welcome and appreciated.
Getting people to accept your leadership is always challenging, but it borders on impossible when you don’t know your stuff. The flipside of this is that, when you really know what you’re talking about, when you know your subject better than anyone, people will want to follow you.
You might be an expert in your business. You might be an expert in the product or service you sell. Then again, maybe you’re not – there are certainly successful businesses started by people who initially had no clue what they were getting into. Either way, to be seen as a leader to your team and especially to be seen as a leader in your industry, your expertise needs to be developed.
It’s not so important where you are now. That is simply the reality at this point in time. What matters is that you dedicate yourself to learning. Regardless of what you know now, there is more to learn. Study your industry; study your customers; study your product; study business; and study leadership. Like it or not, a great leader is a great student.
The best place to begin developing or expanding your expertise is with the currently-recognized experts. Identify who they are and read what they’ve written. If they conduct seminars or give talks, attend them. Be wary, though, that the Internet has made it possible for just about anyone to manufacture pseudo-expertise by creating a course on one of the many online education platforms. Be sure that the people you learn from are truly recognized as experts by others in the field.
This is among the fastest ways to learn. Find people who’ve accomplished what you hope to, and learn from them. This is a step above reading their material or attending their lectures, though. A mentor is someone you know personally, who you can talk to, bounce ideas off of, get advice from…
Finding a good mentor can be a challenge, but it is one worth pursuing. Once you’ve identified the experts you hope to emulate, look for opportunities to meet them. Be creative – if you’re not able to meet them in person, use technology. Are they on social media? Do they have a blog with a contact page?
Experts in any field got that way because they are passionate about their subject, and genuinely enjoy talking about it. Showing sincere interest goes a long way toward building a relationship. It will take time, but again, it’s worth it.
This is another way to increase your knowledge quickly. Teaching others forces you to learn. It creates accountability. And in addition to growing your own expertise – essential to becoming a leader – mentoring in itself helps to establish you as a leader.
Just as people won’t follow those who don’t know their subject, they’ll also resist following anyone who seems uncertain, regardless of that person’s actual knowledge.
To lead effectively, you need to exude confidence. This doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but it can be developed. It will take practice and a good dose of self-awareness.
Fortunately, the things you are doing to become a better leader will also lead to increased confidence, which in turn leads to improved leadership skills – a “virtuous circle,” so to speak.
One of the most important steps you can take in growing your confidence is to be decisive. When you have a decision to make, do ask questions, listen to others, and weigh the options, but ultimately make the decision. Don’t second-guess yourself. Decide, then act.
This is where your self-awareness is needed – if you know that you typically labor over decisions, give yourself a hard deadline and stick to it. Once the decision is made, be aware of the language you use in communicating your decision – avoid phrases like “we should,” “maybe,” “I think so…” or “in my opinion.” Replace those phrases with words that express certainty and confidence, or leave the offending phrase out entirely. Instead of, “I think this would be best…” try, “Here is a better option…”
Confidence matters even when you are unsure or just plain don’t know. Nobody, not even the world’s top expert on a subject, has all the answers. When you don’t know, say so, but do it unapologetically. A confident “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” elicits far more trust in those you lead than a hesitant or uncertain answer.
This is one of the easier aspects of becoming the best leader you can be – dress for the image you are trying to convey in your business. This doesn’t necessarily mean “dressing to impress.” You may look great in that $4,000 Burberry suit, but does it fit with your professional image? Is it consistent with your brand? Over dressing can work against you if it alienates or intimidates those you hope to influence.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t dress well. A question to ponder is how those leaders you want to be like would dress.
To lead, you must know where you’re going. You need to see your ideal future, and that of your business, vividly. As importantly, you need to communicate your vision. To be a truly great leader, you need others to be able to visualize that ideal future, too.
Your vision should include the immediate future as well as the long-term. On top of that ideal destination, visionaries can see the potential pitfalls and roadblocks that might get in the way of that ideal, and they have plans to get over, around, or through them.
A clearly defined vision guides you toward your goals. Recognizing your vision inspires others to follow.
More simply put, leaders lead. Delegating, though, is more than just handing off a task and hoping it gets done. The opposite side of the coin – micromanaging – is also not the way to delegate effectively.
When delegating, your first step is to clearly define the task or role. Know precisely what it is that needs to be done before deciding who will do it. Knowing the work that needs to be done will make assigning the task much easier.
A leader gives tasks to the right people. That, of course, means recognizing people’s talents and skills. That said, not every task will require the most talented or most skilled person. That, also, is important to recognize.
As you assign a task or create a new job role, be very clear in your expectations. Ask questions to confirm that those expectations are understood. Welcome questions from the person you’re assigning the task to as well. If necessary, provide training.
Once assigned, trust that the person you chose can handle the job. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t check in – let experience be your guide here. If it is a brand new task or a brand new hire, you will want to verify that person is following your instructions correctly. Once again, though, do not micromanage. Allow your people to demonstrate their capabilities. Check in, but don’t stare over their shoulders. And the more competence they demonstrate, the less frequently you should check in.
It may be true that some great leaders are born to lead. For most of us, becoming a great leader takes time, effort, and dedication. The payoff for your effort, though, extends far beyond your business. A good leader has confidence that transfers to all areas of life. Leaders can face challenges readily, in and out of their businesses. Learning to lead effectively will improve your self-esteem. When you exemplify leadership, unexpected opportunities present themselves regularly, almost magically. It is no exaggeration to call leadership one of the most important skills you can develop.
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