9 leadership skills that separate great managers from good ones

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Most of us can identify a great leader when we work with them, but what about before that? Can leadership skills be communicated via a resume, or from how a potential leader carries themselves in an interview?​

Understanding the key skills of quality leaders can help you to find leadership candidates with the greatest potential to drive your business forward. And for those of you looking to move into a leadership role, recognizing the skills employers are looking for allows you to really shine through.

Contents

Leadership skills: a 30-second overview

  • Strong leaders are essential in modern business — they’re the people who drive the business forward, ensure commerciality, and rally the troops together under one shared objective.
  • Being a leader isn’t an easy job though; it requires a long list of leadership skills, and each of these skills takes time to develop.
  • Great leaders excel in four key areas: communication, motivation, understanding and development. But every manager and director has their unique style or approach.
  • Many leadership skills are what we’d call ‘soft’ skills, meaning they are difficult to demonstrate on paper or in an interview. Hiring teams should ask executive applicants for examples of times their leadership skills were tested, while leaders themselves should look to strengthen their abilities through practice and experience.

 

Leadership Skills: TED Video Talks

What leadership skills do all great leaders share?

Great leadership is, almost by definition, individual — no two leaders are identical. Yet even if each leader approaches the how of leadership differently, there are some crucial skills that all great leaders need to cover:

  • Communication – Inspiring leaders are almost always excellent communicators. And we’re not just talking about rousing company-wide keynotes, either. A manager or director who excels in their role will know how to communicate effectively with everyone: team mates, customers, senior managers, and investors.
  • Motivation – There’s a wide variety of potential motivators in every workplace; salary, flexi time, after-work socials, public praise, purpose and meaning… the list goes on. The very best leaders understand these motivators and how to apply them from one team member to the next. They’ll likely be highly self-motivated, as well.
  • Understanding – Leadership isn’t about imposing your will and “being a boss”. It’s about understanding and empathizing — listening and really hearing. That’s how effective, supportive teams are created.
  • Development – It’s a manager’s role to help other people learn and develop. Truly successful leaders will combine their skills in communication, motivation and understanding to continuously improve their teams (and themselves!).

There are many ways to train and improve these skills, but practice makes perfect (as they say). Great leaders aren’t born, they evolve from years of trial and error and from working at their skills. Importantly, they also learn from observing other great leaders that they work alongside or underneath.

What is the meaning of leadership skills?

Leadership can be a complicated concept. We know it when we see it (and we definitely know when it’s absent), but it can be tricky to pin down exact leadership skills meaning.

Put simply, leadership is the art of enabling others to perform at their best.

Leadership skills are the ultimate in ‘soft’ skills. They’re almost never taught during formal education and are almost impossible to test in a formal assessment situation. They’re complicated, nuanced, situational… and essential.

Woman leader

A comprehensive leadership skills list (with real-world examples)

As we’ve implied so far, leadership isn’t a single skill. Instead, it’s a combination of many essential qualities, each used at the right time and in the right way.

The most important of these skills are:

Communication

Knowing how to communicate effectively rates high on any leadership skills list. 

  • Communication is both the ability to explain things to others and the ability to listen to, and understand, what they are explaining to you. This is the foundation of successful leadership and without it even the most promising would-be leaders will fail.
  • The managers and directors who go far put time and effort into honing their communication skills. They know how to “speak the language” of the different groups they need to work with and practice active listening. They adjust and adapt their speaking and listening style based on who they’re talking to, as well.
  • Being a strong communicator isn’t just important during face-to-face conversations, of course. Great leaders convey tone and meaning well in all mediums — be it email, in project management meetings, or just in ‘watercooler chat’ when hanging around the office.

Inspiration

Great managers and directors inspire and empower the people who work for them. You can usually tell the best leaders by the enthusiasm their team members have for the projects and work they’re doing. 

  • As John C. Maxwell, the leadership author, once said: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”
  • Inspirational leaders care passionately about their work and their teams. They want to succeed, and they want the people around them to succeed with them. They communicate this enthusiasm and they give their team members a reason to care.
  • This might be in terms of awards and recognition, or simply knowing that they’re contributing to an overall goal. Whatever works best for the team in question — because a great leader will be able to read that, too.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand, and to care about, what someone else is feeling. Great leaders don’t feign interest in their team members. They don’t have to. Instead, they are deeply interested and invested in them and their well-being.

  • A manager who understands their team members is able to tailor their strategies and to ensure that their staff feel respected as individuals.
  • Where one person might be motivated by public praise, another might feel embarrassed by the attention. Both will feel acknowledged and inspired by a leader who notices, and respects, the difference.

Trustworthiness

Trust is essential for leadership, and being a trustworthy leader means making sure that your team members can rely on you.

  • Trustworthy leaders keep their word, have achievable expectations of others, offer both praise and advice when needed, and have consistent standards.
  • A leader who focuses on earning and retaining the trust of their team benefits everyone. Team members feel more secure and confident. The leader is able to ask for exceptional performance at critical moments. And higher management knows that the leader can hit their targets.

Trusting

While most people understand that a leader needs to be trustworthy, far fewer consider that a leader also needs to be good at trusting others.

  • Great leaders hire people they respect and invest the time in understanding them. This allows them to trust their teams and creates space for a high degree of autonomy.
  • In the words of Ed Catmull, co-founder and ex-CEO of Pixar: “Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up — it means you trust them when they do screw up.”
  • Leaders who trust and respect their teams have no difficulty delegating, and aren’t tempted to micromanage. That saves them from the dreaded burnout and is also incredibly motivating for their teams.

Growth

The best leaders have a deep belief in the importance of personal development. They prioritize learning and development both for themselves and for others. This might be through offering regular feedback, setting time (and budget) aside for courses and further learning, or advocating mentorship schemes.

By focusing on enabling those around them to grow, great leaders are able to avoid most of the more toxic aspects of workplace cultures:

  • Team members feel supported, rather than competitive. 
  • Feedback is focused on growth, rather than criticism. 
  • Challenges become opportunities, rather than demands.

Leaders who prioritize their own personal growth are also leading by example.

Creativity and flexibility

Great leadership can’t be rigid or formulaic. Leaders need to be the first to react to changing situations and need the flexibility and creativity to be able to excel. This includes being open to suggestions from their team members and being willing to adapt to alternative ways of working.

  • The changes to work practices during the pandemic have been a prime example of this in action. The strongest, most flexible leaders have supported their teams and found creative solutions to immense challenges.
  • They may have used questionnaires to stay connected with dwindling engagement levels, frozen performance reviews for the year (like Facebook), or made a four-day workweek mandatory.

Responsibility

A willingness to take responsibility is another hallmark of a great leader. No one likes a manager with sloping shoulders.

  • Knowing that a leader will take responsibility for the performance of their team creates a strong sense of trust and inspires collaboration.
  • Sharing responsibility for successes can be equally important. A leader who stands tall, saying “here’s what my team accomplished” instills pride in their workforce. Many of the best leaders will talk about “my” failures, and “our” success.

Nature or nurture: how do we acquire leadership skills?

Having great leadership skills is a key requirement for top talent. If we know that employers want great leaders, how can we develop those skills?

Some people naturally embody a breadth of leadership skills. They have the charisma, drive, and passion for building others up, seemingly without any effort. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to learn, however. And if you wouldn’t call yourself a natural leader, then there are ways to build those skills through hard work and dedication. Because here’s the thing: even the best leaders won’t excel in all of the skills that we’ve listed above. You may find leaders who are noted for their communication skills but are tempted to micromanage — and vice versa.

Ask yourself what excites you about leadership. Understanding your own motivation and concerns will allow you to address any areas of weakness and focus on making the most of your strengths. Consider how your current position is developing your leadership skills. You could ask for more responsibility, or join a mentorship scheme that’s available. If you can’t develop your skills within your current role, is it time to look elsewhere?

Great leaders are focused on personal development and growth, so start that process today.

Demonstrating leadership skills in resumes and assessments

Having great leadership skills isn’t enough on its own. You also need to be able to demonstrate these traits to a prospective employer. This isn’t always easy, especially in the limited space available on a resume or application form. 

  • Think about the ways in which your current and previous roles have required the leadership skills examples mentioned above. Highlight where you have needed to use these skills, as well as including any training you have sourced for yourself.
  • When preparing for a director interview or assessment, it’s also useful to think about questions probing your leadership skills.
  • Find practical examples of times when you used your leadership skills with a positive outcome — you may have taken a new colleague under your wing, taken responsibility in project management, or taken a back seat when it was another person’s time to shine.
  • You can even try to think of times when you struggled to show good leadership, and what you learned from the experience.

Looking for leaders

Hiring professionals and HR managers are always looking for future leaders. And, in some ways, we have a similar difficulty to applicants. They struggle to show leadership skills in a resume, but we can also struggle to find the evidence required, whether in their resume or by the interview questions we ask.

Great leaders, and leaders-in-waiting, share one common characteristic: they understand the importance of good leadership. Ask them about their responsibilities and how they approach their role as a leader today — no matter the level they are currently at. Candidates who can talk about leadership, and particularly those who talk about the skills required, are likely to grow into better leaders.

Of course, there are always some who talk the talk without being able to walk the walk. So always collect recommendations and references for any leader you’re considering. 

 

Key Search
We hire your key leaders

Key Search has decades of experience and a proven track record in finding the very best leadership talent. Our in-depth knowledge allows us to find applicants with the leadership style, skills and abilities you need, so get in touch with your executive search challenge today.

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