The top qualities of leadership that every aspiring manager should work toward
If you’re an aspiring leader, you have a lot on your plate. Not only do you need to perform your current job well, but you also have to show leadership potential. Once you get there, the tasks get even greater because you may have a team under you (and even if you’re not a direct people manager, you’ll need to lead projects or teams). It can all be dizzying. But when thinking about the top qualities of leadership, there are a few that stand out from the pack.
Named as one of the top qualities of leadership, empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s emotions and feelings. To put it simply, it’s “being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. Empathy used to be considered a “soft skill” that wasn’t entirely necessary at work, but new research shows that idea was false. Studies link empathetic managers to more satisfied employees since they feel managers understand them more. If you’ve ever received feedback that you don’t connect with people well or people feel like you’re not listening to them, you may have an opportunity to grow more empathy.
How to cultivate empathy: The best way to start is to listen more and fight your urge to defend or explain. This could be as simple as joining a group lunch and listening to their conversation on the sidelines, asking questions to clarify if you don’t understand something but not responding with your own opinions. As a more advanced way to cultivate empathy, ask for direct, honest feedback from someone (or a few people), and just listen. Respond only to let the person know you heard them, but resist explaining why something went the way it did or defending your actions. When you put yourself in the position of hearing feedback without responding, you not only get the chance to think over things at your own pace, you learn more about how coworkers might feel when they aren’t able to respond to the feedback they receive.
Setting a work vision for your team
One key job of any leader is to take the company’s big vision and digest it into a functional vision for their team. For example, if the company vision is to be the best house builder in the world and you’re a marketing leader, you need to figure out what it is about marketing that will help the company be the best in the world. You may see your job, then, as responsible for making sure that everyone in the world knows your company’s name. If everyone knows the company, then you have a better opportunity to work with high quality suppliers and gain access to high quality land – all in the service of building the best homes in the world.
How to set a vision for your team: Reverse engineer the company’s vision by going step-by-step backward then intersecting each step with your team’s competency or area of expertise. Take the house example for instance. If you want to build the best houses, what is needed? Probably the best materials, the best land, and the best contractors. In order to work with the best contractors and get the best materials, people need to know who you are. You also probably need to deeply understand your target buyer so you know what “best” means to them. As a marketer, doing research on customer personas and developing a strategy to connect with the right partners is right in your wheelhouse, so it naturally fits as a potential team vision.
Run productive 1:1 meetings
As a leader, one of your only jobs is motivating your individual contributors to do their best work. Once you have a work vision set so your team knows where to focus, you will need to work with people on an individual level. The most common way to do this is through the one on one meeting. Typically a weekly or bi-weekly check in, these meetings cover the employee’s work and accomplishments but also focus on the employee as a human with goals and lives outside of work.
How to run better 1:1 meetings: The best 1:1 meetings focus on the employee as a whole person. This means looking at not only work accomplishments but also what’s going on in their lives outside work. Look towards making 1:1 meetings more inclusive so that employees feel more comfortable being honest with you. Then learn more about their goals and personal desires, seeing how you can help them manifest what they want through their job. When you link their motivations outside work to their jobs, you have a higher likelihood of building trust, increasing engagement, and increasing productivity.
According to the Future of Work report by RBC, digital literacy is essential for all employees going forward. Technology (including artificial intelligence) is too prevalent in the working world for people to ignore it. The same goes for managers – if employees need digital literacy, one of the top qualities of leadership is data orientation. This will not only help leaders understand data and its implications but also help them lead digitally literate teams.
How to become more data oriented: If you’re not usually a data-driven person (for instance, those who prefer to make decisions on gut feeling), don’t fret. One of the easiest ways to shift your mindset from gut-driven to data-driven to look at data first. You don’t need to overhaul your entire way of thinking and acting. Instead, start with data every time before making a gut call. Let the data inform your gut decision reflex, which by now is likely quite strong. The result will usually be more sound decision making. If you end up going against the data and it doesn’t work out, you’ll end up training your gut decision making reflex to listen to the data more often.
The ability to listen
Listening is a tough skill because each person takes in what someone else says and puts it through their own mental filters. We all do this because every person has slightly different experiences and understandings based on our background. This is a great thing when it comes to diversity in business but can be difficult when it comes to qualities of great leaders.
How to become a better listener: To cultivate listening, clarify your understanding. When someone tells you something, repeat back what you thought you heard or what you understood from their point. Then give them the chance to confirm your understanding or clarify. This can feel uncomfortable at first (or even downright stupid if something feels obvious to you or the other person). However, over time this skill becomes much easier. The key benefit is that it ensures that you are on the same page with the other person. It may sound counterintuitive that you need to talk more to listen better, but clarifying your understanding is a great way to not only improve your listening skills but also learn to process information more efficiently with different people.
The ability to delegate
When you’re an individual contributor, you’re measured on output. You’re incentivized to become more productive, doing more with the same or fewer resources. However, leaders are measured based on team output. If you’re too focused on getting more of your own work done, your team’s work may suffer. So that makes delegation one of the top qualities of leadership. Your job is now to be the catalyst of your team’s productivity. You must help them get done more with the same or fewer resources (as your manager hopefully did for you when you were an individual contributor).
How to delegate better: Delegation is a matter of owning the vision but letting go of the execution. The best delegators start by setting the work vision for the team. Then they identify each team member’s strengths or preferences and match work to be done to each team member. Once work starts, the leader tweaks jobs as necessary, helps team members when they are stuck, and acts as the cohesive glue that keeps the team interacting and working as a team (not just a group of individuals).
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