Leaders are constant learners. Or rather, good leaders are constant learners. And aspiring leaders need to be consistent learners as well. Growing into a leadership role requires you to develop leadership skills. And growing from a new leader to a great leader requires you to continue to develop your leadership skills.
But development is often one of the first activities sacrificed by the needs of the moment. New problems to solve and new tasks to complete steal time away from developing your leadership skills. But many of those “urgent” activities also present opportunities to practice your leadership skills—especially if you’re not currently in a leadership role.
In this article, we’ll outline six ways to develop leadership skills that often present themselves during your day-to-day work.
The first way to develop leadership skills is to be disciplined. It’s difficult for people to look at someone like a leader if they’re constantly late or completely failing. Research suggests people seek an “idealized influence” in their leaders—they want to see their leader as a role model. So, if you’re looking to develop into a leader, first develop the discipline you’ll need to be seen as a leader. Take a good look at how you’re working right now, and how you’re organizing your day or your task list and see where you could benefit most from a little more discipline or a new system in place that will help you hit your goals—which will also help you get noticed as a leader.
The second way to develop leadership skills is to take initiative. If you’re already in a leadership role, you’re going to have a lot of initiative handed to you. But if you’re seeking to get into a leadership role, finding opportunities to volunteer for new projects or tasks is a fast and effective way to find yourself being given more responsibility. When you see a problem or you see a critical task getting missed, that’s an opportunity to take the initiative and volunteer to work on the solution. Taking initiative not only gives you a chance to develop new skills as you work on these new projects, but it also makes it more like you’re seen as leadership material—or given leadership over that project entirely.
The third way to develop leadership skills is to listen well. Effective leaders are skilled communicators. They know how to get their message across. But more importantly they know that in order to do so they need to understand and empathize with the perspectives of everyone on their team. The positive aspect of developing active listening skills is that you can do so at any level and during any activity that involves discussion. Practice listening to understand. Practice asking clarifying questions and summarizing what you heard. And practice speaking last and offering your opinion once you understand others, instead of speaking first and trying to sell everyone on your idea. The former will get you noticed as a leader, the later will get you seen as an adversary.
The fourth way to develop leadership skills is to handle conflicts. This doesn’t mean actively looking for conflicts and gossip to interject in. Nor does it mean overstepping your bounds and jumping into a conflict that should be handled by your boss. But often there are smaller conflicts between two people or two parties that go unnoticed and go unresolved because of it. This is a good place to practice the conflict resolution skills you’ll need to develop as a leader, especially the skill of holding conflicting ideas in your head at the same time and pro-offer solutions. At the same time, the people in conflict will benefit from a different perspective to see the problem from.
The fifth way to develop leadership skills is to offer help. This is sort of like “take initiative” but at a smaller and more personal level. When you notice a colleague is struggling or is in need of feedback, offer to help them work on it. It may even be colleagues who don’t work on your team. When you start jumping into help, you build rapport with colleagues and get seen as someone who works hard and cares for others. But you also get a better understanding of your colleague’s roles and how it overlaps with yours. In time you get a better understanding of the whole organization, which be very useful as you grow into new leadership roles. Poor leaders see their team as most important; great leaders know how interdependent each role and each team truly is.
The final way to develop leadership skills is to keep learning. Some people have 10 years of work experience, and others have the same year repeated 10 times. To develop as a leader, you’ll need to develop the skill or discipline of constantly learning—especially learning knowledge, skills, and abilities outside of the demands of your current role. Unless you’re working for an organization that has a “high potential” program (and you’ve been lucky enough to be chosen for it), most of your development will be in ways that allow you to do your current job better. But as you move into leadership—or as your leadership influences expands—you’ll need different skills. And so, you’ll have to develop your own high potential program.
It’s worth pointing out that the word “keep” in “keep learning” could really be applied to the five other skills as well. Keep increasing discipline and taking initiative. Keep handling conflicts and offering help. Keep growing and developing and you’ll keep expanding your leadership potential. Poor leaders think they’re done learning once they’ve got the job. Great leaders know if they keep growing, there’s no limit on their leadership. And that means there’s no limit on the ways they can lead a team to do its best work ever.
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