The question “what do you want to be when you grow up” is posed to children at a very early age. The answers are usually quite endearing: ballerina, firefighter, artist, singer, doctor. Often the child picks a career that celebrates their interests at the time. It is, after all, a worthwhile endeavor to professionally pursue your passions. However, as these kids grow up and learn about the “real world”, they come to understand that each of their dream careers requires hours of hard work, dedication and focus. Some children are born with the ability to retain focus on a goal for sustained periods of time, while others need to practice building their capabilities.
Indeed, this is the case for most skills. There are those born with traits that make them great athletes, artists and students – including speed, hand-eye coordination or sense of color. However, while hand-eye coordination might not be easy to teach – many other talents are. There are clear abilities that are necessary for successful leadership. These skills are divided into two categories: those which exist solely in the person, such as determination and integrity, and those which are developed through interaction with other people, including active listening and empathy. When a leader can train in and master these skills, they will be able to lead an organization through even the darkest periods successfully.
One of the highly desirable skillsets in a leader is described in many ways: critical thinking, stoicism, impartiality and objectivity. Essentially, it is the ability to analyze a situation and determine the best strategy without being bogged down by factors such as personal bias. It is non-negotiable in a leader because if the executive puts their unique needs over those of the company – the company will start to crumble. Critical thinking is essential when looking at a wide range of different aspects of a business’s ecosystem, as it allows one to keep the concepts of the company as whole and individual components in their head simultaneously. While it is a natural skill – it is something that someone can develop if they put the effort in.
However, there is also a healthy medium in this skill set. While strategy needs a neutral approach, it is critical that you do not take all humanity out of the equation. A leader’s job is to look after those under their command and ensure their needs are met. In exchange, the employees are loyal to the organization. So, while people can be born with phenomenal strategy and critical thinking acumen, if they don’t practice using it in a way that is utilitarian, equitable and fair, it becomes a recipe for disaster.
It is common to hear people identifying as right or left-brained. Those who have a “left brain” claim to be more analytical and logical – similar to those described above. While those with a right brain see themselves as creative, intuitive and imaginative. While the default settings when we are born might lean toward one side more than the other, we can teach ourselves to combine the two halves. When this is done, leaders can conjure the big ideas for the organization’s future while simultaneously being able to visualize the detailed aspects that will need to be addressed to guarantee success. This is not a simple endeavor as you are literally trying to bridge sections of your brain’s thought processes. However, practice will enable you to bring enthusiasm and passion into the everyday aspects of a company. The end goal is to bestow this vision on the employees, where they can also see the overarching concept of the company, while also seeing their personal role and responsibility in that idea. The result will be an engaged and dedicated workforce.
There are many other skills and operational values that a leader might be born with but can also train themselves. One of these is integrity and ethics. Many studies have shown that employees value the ethical behavior of executives above many other traits, such as charisma or public speaking ability. If a leader is seen as unethical, employees will not trust them or the company and, therefore, will not “sign on” fully to the vision being sold to them. On the other hand, when the executive is viewed as trustworthy and moral, they can operate with the knowledge that they have the force of their employees behind them. For most, ethics are a taught skill starting from a very early age. It is something that we must make a deliberate effort to live by – a choice that is made every day.
Many people in leadership roles talk extensively about their dedication to lifelong learning. In interviews with top CEOs and founders, a default question is always “how many books have you read this week, month or year”. The answer is always some ridiculous number, like five books a week. However, while the hyperbole is undeniable – the message beneath it is far more important. The desire to constantly learn new methodology, techniques and theories about the industry, business or the world is non-negotiable. Someone can be incredibly smart, but if a leader is utterly unaware of the world around them, it is like playing a game of chess without a queen. This is why so many decide to go back to school to improve themselves. Executives attend programs such as a masters in leadership to enrich themselves and improve their leadership style. A dedication to learning also demonstrates a lack of ego, as it indicates that one understands that they do not know everything. They are able to put away their pride to ask questions and gain knowledge. This is why love of learning may be one of the most essential traits in a leader.
While internal, individual skills are important for leadership, there are skills that can only be practiced with other people. Some people are natural extroverts – able to meet new people and engage and charm them quickly. The skill of being a “people person” is definitely something that many are born with. These individuals have an inherited understanding of how to navigate friendships and relationships and do so with relative ease. However, while it might seem like their ability to make friends quickly is easy, there are actually many elements that come into play, and each element can be taught and learned.
For example, active listening is a necessary step in building relationships. Active listening is defined as the practice of using verbal and non-verbal signals to demonstrate to a speaker that you are paying close attention to them. Communication is non-negotiable in the workforce, where the ability to talk with internal and external partners is a daily task. When done properly, it does a fantastic job of building rapport and trust between two individuals. It is very easy to train yourself in the components of active listening, such as sustained eye contact and non-verbal cues. Every day there are dozens of chances to practice these actions and discover the difference between hearing and listening.
Another people skill that some are born with but can be developed and nurtured over time is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and connect to the feelings of other people. It is a critical component of any relationship, as it demonstrates that both parties value each other. Empathetic people are often referred to as sensitive or emotional, however, empathy is far more complicated than that. It should be understood as the superpower of being able to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes and therefore see them as a complete human. Like our physical muscles, empathy must be developed and strengthened. In leadership, skills like those mentioned above, such as critical thinking, stoicism and objectivity, are often celebrated over emotions and interpersonal relationships. However, true leaders know that in order to build a sustainable company, they need to be able to do both.
There are dozens of other skills which are necessary in leaders, such as gratitude and determination. This list only scratches the surface. It is imperative that leaders who want their employees to feel like a valued part of a team adopt a few of these above skills, but ideally all of them. This can be achieved by a constant self-awareness that focuses on the implementation and consistency of active listening, critical thinking, lifelong learning and empathy behaviors. For each of these examples, it all comes down to practice.
While the old adage says that “practice makes perfect”, this is unfortunately not completely true in this case. Instead, practice makes you a far stronger leader who will continue to learn how to manage, support and celebrate their employees.