5 Skills Leaders Need To Develop

5 Skills Leaders Need To Develop

Anyone can be placed in a leadership role. In most organizations, the reward for being an outstanding individual contributor is to be promoted into leading a team of other individual contributors. But those leaders often find that the skills that made them great employees aren’t as helpful when leading great employees (or even mediocre ones). As Marshall Goldsmith famously says, “what got you here, won’t get you there.”

Being successful as a leader requires developing a certain set of new skills. These skills that may or may not have been a part of any “leadership training” program you’ve attended. In this article, we’ll review five skills leaders need to develop in order to be successful—and five skills aspiring leaders should make a point to develop before stepping into their first leadership role.

Relationship Building

The first skill leaders need to develop is relationship building. Leaders are in the people business and need to develop relationships with each individual member of their team and facilitate relationship building across the members of their team. Positive connections between teammates can be the difference between a high-performing team and a merely average one.

They also need to build good working relationships with other teams in the organization, with clients, vendors, and a host of other leaders in their industry. Leaders may have position power over their team, but not any of the other people who are essential to getting their team the resources it needs to get work done. And those relationships usually can’t be built by individual contributors. This makes relationship building outside of the team even more important for leaders.

Creative Thinking

The second skill leaders need to develop is creative thinking. Solving problems is one of the foremost responsibilities of a leader. In a knowledge work environment, the majority of the “work” being done is solving problems—internal problems to keep productivity high or external problems to keep customers happy. And when individuals and teams can’t solve problems at their level of responsibility, they turn to their leaders. That means that leaders need to have the skills to tap into their own creativity and solve the problems that come to them.

In addition, leaders need to develop the skills of facilitating creative thinking on their team. Savvy team leaders know what phase of the problem-solving process the team is in, and hence whether they need to do more research on the problem, generate more ideas for solutions, or start testing out those solutions to gather feedback. And they know how to facilitate those activities on their team so that all voices get heard and all ideas get collected.

Active Listening

The third skill leaders need to develop is active listening. Effective leadership rests on effective communication. Leaders need to get their message across, but in order to do that they need to understand the people in their charge. That makes listening even more important than speaking when it comes to communication skills for leaders. But too many leaders are quick to assume they know enough and quick to spout off what they think. This limits those leaders from hearing a diverse set of viewpoints and limits their team from receiving and accepting the message.

For individual communication, active listening means focusing in on what the other person is saying—putting away other distractions like phones or laptops—and rephrasing what you just heard to check for understanding. For teamwide communication, it means doing all of that plus making sure you’re speaking last when group discussions arise. The leader’s job is at first to facilitate the discussion and summarize and add commentary only after others have shared. Otherwise, teams feel unheard and eventually will stop sharing.

Critical Thinking

The fourth skill leaders need to develop is critical thinking. And this is different from the skill of creative thinking. Leaders are tasked with solving problems but they’re also asked to make decisions—and often to make decisions between two seemingly equal outcomes (equally desirable or equally undesirable). Leaders are only going to be able to make those decisions if they understand how to work through a logical process, analyze the information available, and arrive at the best decision—and then stick to that decision even as it faces blowback from those who disagree.

Weak leaders often trade critical thinking for political thinking—taking their cues off of what the majority of the team wants or what their boss or other powerful people prefer. But in the end, decisions made politically often leave people more frustrated trying to execute on a poorly made decision and clueless about what to do when their efforts meet the inevitable resistance.

Meaning Making

The final skill leaders need to develop is meaning making. Teams look to leaders for inspiration
and motivation—and that requires the skills of turning day to day tasks into meaningful work. For most leaders, this involves taking the high-level (and often vague) mission or vision of the organization and making connections between the team’s tasks and that bigger mission. At the same time, meaning making involves reminding teams on a regular basis how their work serves others (sometimes external and sometimes internal), since so much of judging meaningful work is determined by how it affects other people.

In many cases, this also requires learning the internal drives and motivations of each person on the team. Motivation is individual, Different team members are driven by different things. And good leaders know how to align mission of the organization with the desired mission of each individual teammate.

It’s rare that leaders arrive in their first role with these skills. They take time to develop. And that means great leaders don’t stop developing these skills after a certain level in the organization or years of experience. Great leaders are always learning and always developing. What got them into leadership may not get them any further. But, developing these skills will. And these skills will build teams that are better equipped to do their best work ever.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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