Holding a title doesn’t mean you have what it takes to be a leader.
Many people assume that leaders are automatically the people who sit higher up on the organizational ladder: the CEOs, the partners, the project managers. But being a true leader isn’t about power, title, or position; it’s much more than that.
Many of us have experienced the bumbling-boss scenario, where the person who is technically your superior doesn’t exactly exude the qualities of leadership. These leaders are often unprofessional, take credit for things they didn’t do, or make poor decisions. On the flip side, we’ve all known people who don’t hold a formal leadership position in our organizations but are still seen as reliable go-getters. These are the people who others come to for advice and direction; they are the true leaders.
When it comes to leadership, it’s about who you are and how you conduct yourself, not your formal position or role.
So, what are the qualities of leadership? Here are some of the skills, practices, and knowledge understood and used by bona fide leaders, regardless of the job titles they hold.
How Smart Are You, Really?
Daniel Goleman all but coined the term “emotional intelligence,” a set of five skills that enables leaders to be the best they can be. Emotional intelligence embodies the skills that separate great leaders from adequate ones.
- Self-awareness: This involves knowing your strengths and weaknesses and understanding what motivates you, what you value, and the impact you have on other people. Some of the traits exhibited by people with a strong sense of self-awareness include confidence, being realistic about his or her abilities, an appreciation for constructive criticism, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
- Self-regulation: This refers to a person’s ability to control impulses, unproductive emotions, or distractions. Some of the characteristics of people with the ability to self-regulate are honesty, trustworthiness, flexibility, and being comfortable with uncertainty and/or change.
- Motivation: This means being internally driven to achieve your goals for their own sake rather than relying on external sources of validation. Motivation usually manifests in people having passion for the work, enjoying challenges, always seeking to improve, and remaining positive even after a failure.
- Empathy: This is the ability to understand what others are feeling and why they might feel that way. Some of the trademarks of empathy include the ability to help and improve others, being sensitive to differences (cultural, sexual orientation, gender), and having a knack for attracting and holding on to talent.
- Social skills: This means being able to easily connect with people and getting them to work towards a goal. Socially skilled people are persuasive and effective in bringing about change; they also excel at organizing and leading teams.
A Deeper Understanding
The best leaders are those who understand the influence they have on others. Author and respected management guru Peter Drucker says that strategic leadership involves knowing these four things:
- Leaders must have followers. There are many kinds of leaders: thinkers, teachers, prophets. All are important and all are needed—and all of them need followers.
- Even though leaders need followers, the followers need not love or admire their leaders—they only need to do the right things. Being popular doesn’t make you a leader, the results of your leadership do.
- Leaders are always seen and heard, and they know this—so they must set a positive example.
- Leadership is not a job title or position or money. It is responsibility.
How Can I Make It Better?
Whatever their personalities, capabilities, interests, and styles, leaders usually share similar behavior patterns, according to Drucker. Instead of asking, “What do I want?” the question should be, “What needs to be done?” An effective leader then evaluates what he or she can do to make a difference, keeping in mind the organization’s mission and goals. What does his or her particular organization consider to be “improved” performance?
Leaders have a great appreciation for diversity and don’t subconsciously seek out people who are just like them. They often don’t even wonder whether they like someone or not; liking someone is irrelevant to the work that needs to be done. All that matters is a person’s performance and values. And instead of being intimidated by the talents of their associates, these leaders draw strength from them.
Above all, effective leaders are doers, always seeking to improve themselves. “They make sure that the person they see in the mirror in the morning is the kind of person they want to be, respect, and believe in,” says Drucker. “This way they fortify themselves against the leader’s greatest temptations—to do things that are popular rather than right and to do petty, mean, sleazy things.”
Leaders understand their own strengths (and the strengths that others bring to the table) and are uniquely able to figure out the best way to combine the two for optimal results.