leadership skills

The Ultimate Guide to Leadership Skills – What Makes a Good leader?

One of the most important aspects to being a leader is constant learning, the best leaders never stop learning. So where do you start and what leadership skills do you need?

If you Google”What makes a good leader?” you get 41, 500, 000 results. That is a staggering amount of information.

In our blog post, People Management Skills – The Ultimate Guide to Managing People, we look at the differences between leader and manager.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of the differences before you set out on developing the right leader skills.

Leadership and management need to go hand-in-hand. Knowing when to lead and when to manage is the difference between a good leader and a great leader.

In this ultimate guide to we aim to help you navigate this huge topic and give you insight into the qualities, habits and styles of a leader plus look at the world’s most taught leadership tool.

 In this guide we will deliver answers, and understanding, to the following: (you can jump to sections with these links below)

Which area of leadership should we focus on?

Leadership takes many forms and can mean different things.

For example, we can look to history and some of the most passionate political leaders such as; Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher and Mahatma Gandhi.

We can also look to the world of sport with such figureheads as; Sir Alex Ferguson (Football), Seve Ballesteros (Golf – Ryder Cup) and Graham Henry (Rugby).

And of course we have to consider the world of business and the dozens of men and women who have created or transformed giants –  Steve Jobs (Apple), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and Richard Branson (Virgin) to name but a few, all of whom are skillful leaders.

The names of each of the people listed above instantly conjure up images of success, passion, optimism and vision. As a manager or leader you can, and should, aspire to create your own image for the people and team you lead every day.

So to keep things relevant for this blog post we will focus on leadership in the work place. We will look at the importance of leadership, habits, abilities, attitude, qualities and style.


white and red arrows symbolising Leadership styles

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What habits should an effective leader have?

As a leader you will have followers. As a leader you will have expectations of what you want to see from those people; loyalty, trust, passion, courage, communication, decision-making.

What part do you play in helping them meet your expectations?

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek’s TED talk on how great leaders inspire action.

The video deftly explains that if you want people to display positive and productive behaviours, they need to know not just what you do, but WHY you do it.

If you want to inspire your team to be the best they can be, start showing them why you do it.

This excellent infographic succinctly shows five habits an effective leader should pursue to develop, improve and maintain.

Forming good habits isn’t easy, it takes time and a concerted effort. Habits are something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.

You will need to develop a higher level of self-awareness and a willingness to actively seek feedback. Our excellent CPD accredited Leadership programme can help you reach your goals faster.

habits of an effective leader infographic

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What leadership qualities do you need?

Here is a simple exercise to get you to think about what leadership qualities you need.

Think of a great boss you’ve had the past and list why you felt they were. What did they do? What did they say? How did they behave? What did you learn from them?

You will probably come up with a list of words and phrases like;

“I felt motivated and empowered”

“I trusted him/her to support me and even fight my corner”

“They delegated well and made sound decisions”

“He was always positive” and “She gave me constructive feedback that helped me grow.”

Now, do the same exercise for your experience of a bad boss. Not such a rosy picture is it? I’m sure you’ll find that the way he or she made you feel was the mirror opposite of the phrases above.

Tip: Using the exercise above try and identify the top 10 leadership ideas that resonate with you.

Unsure if you need Leadership training? See how you measure up using our competency grid.

If you’ve been told to think more strategically as a skilled leader, our blog on this very subject with it’s easy to use tool is a great place to start.

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Which style of leadership should you adopt?

Answer: All of them

OK, that’s probably unrealistic as there are as many approaches to leadership as there have been leaders.

Consider the list of people earlier in this post. You may be able to assign some general team leadership traits to them but not put your finger on a definitive leadership style.

…but it pays to have a good understanding of the numerous different styles, these include; Autocratic, Democratic, Laissez-faire, Strategic, Transformational, Transactional, Charismatic…and many, many more!

Let’s touch on three of the most commonly known styles…


This leadership style is characterised by an individual’s control over decisions with little or no input from group members.

They will typically take their own opinions, ideas and judgments above those of anyone else and will not often except advice.

Looking through history at the most notable autocratic leaders such as Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible and Pol Pot, it’s difficult to understand how this style would work in any modern organisation. Then does it have a place?

The autocratic leadership style can be used in situations where control is necessary and where there is little margin for error. When conditions are dangerous, rigid rules can keep people out of harm’s way. Similarly, if a staff member is inexperienced or unfamiliar with a particular type of task or job.


A democratic leader brings together people from different levels of an organisation to work towards solving problems or meeting goals.

This leader emphasizes a shared approach to decision-making and will often seek input from everyone in order to reach a consensus.

This leadership style does get results. It fosters a sense of team work and encourages early buy-in and commitment. However you need to be wary of always taking the democratic path. Gaining consensus takes time, therefore it is best to determine what approach is required to get the job done.


Laissez-faire leadership, also known as delegative leadership, is a type of leadership style in which leaders are hands-off and allow group members to make the decisions.

Researchers have found that this is generally the leadership style that leads to the lowest productivity among group members.

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Emotional intelligence as a leadership skill?

Brain shaped map showing EQ leadership style

One area that is worthy of note and of further reading is emotional intelligence in leadership and as a leadership skill. Daniel Goleman was a science journalist who for many years reported on the brain and behavioural sciences.

He published his first book on emotional intelligence in 1995 but it was his book Primal Leadership that identified that effective leaders know the science behind their behaviours.

If there is one thing we can all probably agree on,  a ‘one-size-fits-all’ leadership style does not work for one very important reason; workplace diversity.

stacks of multi coloured cups leadership styles

Workplace diversity refers to the variety of differences between people in an organization. It includes; race, gender, ethnic group, age, personality, cognitive style, tenure, function, education and background.

Diversity also means how people perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. Our perceptions affect our interactions.

If you put all of that into the context of developing your leadership abilities, you should see the importance of emotional intelligence, knowledge and flexibility in your style of leadership.

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So perhaps a better question is; what style of leadership do you use in any given situation?

hammer hitting nail leadership styles

We have determined that we need to be able to flex and apply our leadership style or skills to different people, tasks and situations. Get it wrong and the impact can be demotivated, lost or disgruntled employees.

Situational Leadership is a model for developing people. It provides a common language. It invites individuals to teach their managers about themselves and what kind of help they need in order to develop competence, motivation and confidence.

In this brief introduction we will look at how it works. If you’d like to know more about how we can help you please contact us.

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The Three Leadership qualities of a Situational Leader

  • Diagnosis – the willingness and ability to look at a situation and assess others’ development needs
    • Does the individual need direction or support to become more self- reliant on a particular goal or task?
  • Flexibility – the ability to use a variety of leadership styles comfortably
    • Are you comfortable using both directive and supportive behaviours?

Think about driving your car. What would it be like if you could only use one gear? Not much use huh?

Just like using all of the gears (including reverse!) in your car, it’s important we are able to use a variety of leadership styles when supporting and influencing others. It’s better to be more of an all-terrain vehicle, which is what is meant by flexibility.

  • Partnering for Performance – reaching agreements with people about the leadership style they need in order to achieve their individual and organisation goals.

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The Four Development Levels

Using the first leadership skill, diagnosis, you must begin by assessing the development need of the individual. There are four levels of development, representing four combinations of competence and commitment.

Development Level of the Individual

Competence is a person’s demonstrated task-specific knowledge and skills and transferable knowledge and skills on a given task or goal.

Commitment is a measure of an individual’s motivation and confidence in relation to a specific goal or task. Commitment is attitudinal; it is inferred from behaviour.

  • Motivation is a person’s interest in and enthusiasm for the goal or task.
  • Confidence is a person’s feeling of self-assurance, of being able to perform a goal or task well without a lot of help from his or her leader.

Here is a brief description of each of the development levels;

  • D1 – The Enthusiastic Beginner – Low Competence, High Commitment
    • This person may be new to the team or organisation and is excited about their new role. At the same time, he or she doesn’t yet know the ropes, so doesn’t have the skills required for the job in hand.Words That Describe: Enthusiastic, Curious, Inexperienced, Hopeful, Untested Performer
  • D2 – The Disillusioned Learner – Low Competence, Low Commitment
    • This person may have been around for a while and may have some relevant skills. Motivation and enthusiasm have dropped. The person may be thinking of leaving. They may be inconsistent in their performance and unsure of the difference they make.
      Words That Describe Them: Frustrated, Disillusioned, Demotivated, Overwhelmed, Inconsistent/Adequate Performer
  • D3: The Reluctant Contributor –  High Competence, Variable Commitment
    • This person has probably been around for a while and is quite experienced and capable. At times though, they lack the confidence to do things alone and/or the motivation to do it well. Might be bored and looking for new challenges.Words That Describe Them: Capable, Apathetic, Insecure, Dissatisfied, Middling/Tolerable Performer
  • D4: The Peak Performer – High Competence, High Commitment
    • This person enjoys what they are doing, is highly competent and probably even teaching others the ropes.
      Words That Describe Them: Competent, Self-directed, Confident, Role Model, Independent, High Performer, Inspiring

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The Four Leaderships Styles

To be a Situational Leader, you need to be able to use to kinds of leadership behaviour – Directive and Supportive – and then combine them with one of four leaderships styles.

It is important to remember that getting the balance right – so not being overly directive or too supportive – is the difference between making situational leadership work or not.

This brings into play the second leadership skill, flexibility.

Leadership styles - Supportive/Directive behaviour

Here is a brief description of each of the development levels;

  • S1 – Directing“Here’s what I want you to do”
    The leader takes the lead in telling the employee what, when and how to accomplish a goal or task. They also provide frequent follow-up and feedback
  • S2 – Coaching“Here’s what I suggest, what do you think?”
    The leader needs to be sensitive to any feelings of discouragement the individual might be feeling. Therefore they give more explanation, asks for suggestions and praise behaviours that are approximately right. They continue to direct the task to completion.
  • S3 – Supporting – “How will you tackle this goal or task? What can I do to help?”
    The leader and individual make decisions together. The role of the leader is to facilitate, listen, draw out ideas, encourage and support.
  • S4 – Delegating – “Can you take care of this for me”
    The leader empowers the individual to act independently with the appropriate resources to get the job done.

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Understanding how the two combine in Situational Leadership

The goal is to match your leadership style to the individuals development level. Getting this right will impact positively on their performance and their desire to do a great job.

Leadership styles

Simply put, the match for a D1 development level is with an S1 directing leadership style, and so on.

To summarise our snapshot of Situational Leadership;

  • Diagnose the situation
  • Discuss the individual’s needs
  • Coach in a way that is customised to that particular person, goal, time and place.

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Leadership Styles and Skills Summary

There is so much more to learn about here, we’ve only just scratched the surface. If you would like to learn more about our approach to leadership development please contact us or take a look at the course we offer.

Other great Leadership resources to explore


Videos on Leadership Tips

Watch 1 minute videos on how to be a better leader:

Darren A. Smith

About Darren A. Smith

Darren has been working in the world of UK Supermarkets and Suppliers for over 20 years. He began his career as a buyer at one of the big 4 UK supermarkets and after rising through the ranks he decided to leave after 13 years and set-up Making Business Matter.

For the last 14 years he has run MBM, which is a training provider to the UK grocery industry. Helping suppliers to the big four supermarkets to develop the soft skills that will secure them more profitable wins.

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