Leadership skills: why we all need to learn how and when to lead

Leading a trail of tourists on camels
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You may not be in an official leadership role, but we all have to pick up the baton from time to time. In these instances, how do you ensure you're being a good leader?

Leadership these days really does come in all shapes and sizes. Although leadership can be, and often is, a position within an organisation, more often than not it is far more likely to be a role we take on as and when a situation demands it of us.

That means that all of us can be leaders at any point in our careers and that we need to rise to this challenge just as much as we need to also be good and effective team members sometimes too.

It also means that those who are in a leadership position may not necessarily be great leaders nor have sufficient leadership skills.

Leadership as a role versus leadership as an action

Studies and articles abound on what it means to be a great leader, and how to inspire and motivate others and be accountable for our own actions.

It’s easy to assign leadership to a role that is thrust upon us by stepping into a managerial position or executive role. This means that less emphasis is given to recognising when we also need to be great team members; when leadership is a position, regardless of how we might inspire or motivate others, it is understood that a clear set of behaviours and actions come with the role.

If it is not a position, then we may not necessarily perceive ourselves to be leaders. Yet we can all develop stronger self-awareness to not only recognise when a situation demands leadership of us but to also develop the skills and competences we need to rise to that challenge.

How do we become good leaders?

Self-awareness is the key to leadership. The first step in self-awareness is developing a much stronger sense of 'reading' a situation – to do this we need to be fully present wherever we are.

That is easier said than done as very rarely are we fully present! We switch off easily, listen badly and make judgements based on assumptions. Teach yourself to supersise your listening skills starting with the very next conversation you have: eliminate distractions, immerse yourself in that conversation, ask more questions and very quickly you’ll have developed your understanding of what might really be going on.

You can do the same thing when you walk into a meeting or find yourself in a group situation – start observing body language, how people are sitting, group dynamics and how people present their 'status'.

Developing a better understanding of what is going on, in any situation, requires sensitivity and being fully present.

Status is presented largely in body language and how we might walk into a room, but also in who speaks first or how often someone speaks or appears to be steering the discussion. When you feel yourself switching off, don’t. Strive to pay even more attention!

It may be that during a meeting you recognise an opportunity yourself to steer the discussion in a collaborative way or to bring someone else into it by inviting contributions or simply making it easier for that person to contribute. Or, if aware of status and positional leadership, you may sense a way to invite more collaboration or the need to give credit before coming in with your own idea.

Developing a better understanding of what is going on, in any situation, requires sensitivity and being fully present. That means letting go of assumptions, agendas or ego.

In this sense your leading might be very understated or not even noticed – but it is still leadership because the situation has demanded it.

Collaboration is good, but someone needs to make the ultimate decision

Many people want to feel included in decision making and feel as if they have choices regarding their work. That means that people value choice and flexibility, which makes collaboration a more favourable approach.

Teams work together to come up with the best solutions, rather than having one person tell everybody how things should be done.

Sometimes, though, even within a collaborative team, leadership might be needed. This is especially so when it comes to making decisions.

There may often be times when a decision needs to be made quickly and there is ambiguous information or criteria or that potential solutions have equal merit.

In reality decisions are usually made anyway with incomplete information, less than perfect circumstances and actually there may not necessarily be a 'right' or 'wrong' decision as such, just different outcomes and consequences. More often than not, a collaborative team may breathe a collective sigh of relief if one of them steps forward and makes the decision.

Practise the leadership approaches you feel less comfortable with

When I did my MBA at Cranfield, leadership was a key theme. I remember attending a leadership elective all based around Henry V going into battle. It was very much about inspiring others, being the great leader and enabling others to be their best.

Among several drama exercises, some of them involving reciting Shakespeare to ‘followers', one activity we did has always stayed with me. The room was divided into four different zones: a boardroom, a cushy comfy couch, a 'creative' corner with lots of toys and props and a zone where we went into battle with paper swords. We had to move around the zones engaging with each one and with each other.

The style of leaders that we are will also be reliant on what the situation demands.

Of course, the whole thing was about classic leadership styles but, more crucially, developing a better awareness of how each one felt and we were encouraged to think about how that manifested itself physically, emotionally and mentally.

At that time in my life I favoured the couch and intensely disliked the competitive zone. The key lesson was that we were to embrace all of them and find ways to bring them into our lives so that we would sense and become more aware of when it was appropriate to be collaborative, creative, strategic or do battle and be more competitive.

It was such a powerful lesson and some of the things I then started doing like competitive swimming and comedy improvisation have been ways to strengthen some of the zones I felt less comfortable in.

Learn which leadership style is best suited to any given situation

I believe this awareness is something that we all need now. There will be situations and times, whether personally or professionally, when we may need to be leaders.

The style of leaders that we are will also be reliant on what the situation demands and so there will be times when we may need to be more directive and other times when we may need to encourage better and stronger collaboration.

In this way we can all be leaders as well as followers and this is what we need to keep learning to do.

About Emma Sue Prince

Emma Sue is author of The Advantage – the 7 key soft skills you need to get ahead published by Pearson Business. She has designed an experiential learning workshop based on these skills: adaptability, empathy, integrity, optimism, being proactive, critical thinking and resilience and is currently licensing trainers to deliver these. 

http://www.unimenta.com/The-Advantage-training/Licensed-trainer

Emma Sue provides consultancy in emerging economies and travels regularly to India, Bangladesh and Tanzania advising on a range of large funded projects. She runs a free membership site – Unimenta – for practitioners working in soft skills. When not working Emma Sue runs a local gospel choir in her home town of Godalming, Surrey and is an avid baker.

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