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Leadership Traits for Those New to Leadership

There are libraries of books about leadership, but for anyone who is new to leadership, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here my aim is to explain some simple leadership traits and behaviours to think about first.

First a word about what leadership is. You might think that you have no opportunity to show leadership in your current role. You might not want the responsibility if you are early on in your working life or you may think it arrogant to be trying to lead at an early age. Leadership doesn’t necessarily apply only in a formal leadership role. It doesn’t have to be bombastic or highly visible.  Leadership behaviours are applicable in any group situation irrespective of the seniority of the other members of that group. 

There are broadly two models of leadership, one says that good leadership results from inherent traits that some people possess – although precisely which traits are debated continually. The other states that good leadership is the result of adopting the ‘right’ behaviours. My view is that it is a cyclic combination of the two; the traits drive the behaviours, so the stronger the traits, the more effective the behaviours. But you’ll develop good leadership traits by behaving effectively.

All of this means you can think about how to behave as a new leader and to practice, apply and refine those behaviours.

A meeting of people, one woman standing at the front clearly leading the meeting

The notion of new leadership is neatly encapsulated within this image

Leadership & Management

The terms leadership and management are used interchangeably in business and whilst most people would agree there is a difference it’s not always easy to define it.

Management is more about controlling tasks, processes and costs to assure an outcome. Leadership is about change as well as success. Both intend to support and facilitate others to achieve personal and business outcomes. Most leaders are managers, so it’s important to understand and develop both sets of skills. But they are two different sets of skills. I’ll write about management some other time. 

Defining Leadership

I define leadership as a few key responsibilities:

  1. Setting a clear vision.
  2. Creating a common cause.
  3. Being a guiding light.
  4. Inspiring people.

You can come up with your own definition if you like. The important thing is to have a definition so you know what you’re trying to achieve. Take time to think about the task at hand and consider how you can apply the definitions above (or your own). Leading is about looking after those people you are leading and empowering them to deliver of their best, but making sure you get the job done. But you have to get the job done with others, not in spite of them.

In short, 1&2 are about getting the job done. 3&4 are about looking after others.

Let’s look at the definitions a bit closer:

Setting a Clear Vision

What are we here to do? What are our deadlines? Who are our customers and stakeholders? What risks to we face along the way?

You may not know precisely how you are going to get the job done, but initially, it’s about establishing a vision of what you want to achieve that everyone can understand. That vision needs to be ambitious. First and foremost that you as the leader truly believe that you can genuinely achieve what you’re setting out to do. But it has to be realistic. So you have to think it through.

MBM infographic titled Are your objectives SMART?

Setting SMART objectives will help you to achieve your goals and improve your leadership skills

Define some SMART objectives to test that and weigh up the risks. The vision doesn’t have to be SMART. In fact, don’t let it be. Be ambitious, think big, set your sights on new horizons. But then break it down, so you can see how you’ll get there, or at least move towards it.

Creating a Common Cause

This is about galvanising your team to work as a single unit. What are their individual skills? Who does what? How will the team communicate and work together? How do you ensure everyone is working towards the same goal? Talk often and enthusiastically about the vision, constantly explain why it’s the right course of action, what the benefits are, how great things will be on the other side, what everyone in the team will learn from the experience, how they will feel when it’s done.

One of the (only) great things about a crisis is that it drives people to work together, to have a common cause and to be understanding about one another’s objectives, problems and moments of weakness. That’s the atmosphere you’re trying to create all of the time. It is not easy and it takes a lot of practice – remember this. Don’t expect to be good at it immediately. Very often you’ll feel dissatisfied with the way things are going or went, but learn, refine and be willing to try new ideas. Try hard and don’t be satisfied with sub-optimal outcomes, but live life statistically; don’t expect success every time, just strive for it to be good most of the time, be OK with that, but learn.

Be a Guiding Light

Having set a vision and a common cause your next role as a leader is to steer your team towards its goals. All members of the team need to do their jobs. Only collectively does the team have the capacity and the capability to do it. You don’t have the time or skills on your own. Your role is to keep them working together, keep them moving forward, see things from an elevated, overall perspective (sometimes called the helicopter view) and not to let precise details get in the way; leave those to people in your team.

A forest with a pathway running through the middle of it, illuminated by the natural light

Key role of a leader is to keep the team together and be the ‘guiding light’

Again, this stuff isn’t easy. It takes experience, confidence, clear thinking and resilience. Keep talking to your team individually and as a group. Make sure they all know what they’re doing and help them yourself or with the help of other team members if they don’t. Encourage them to take responsibility for their own tasks, but to seek help when they need it. Look out for stress, conflict or things going wrong and step in with encouragement and guidance. Give them the skills and the time to be able to succeed.

It’s always about capability and capacity; always. Both take effort and money, you will need to convince others to give you the time and the money to get your team ready. And you’ll always be looking to get them ready for the next project, the next set of goals, so it doesn’t end. You won’t have all the answers, but be sure that people know that you’re interested, willing to learn and have faith in them. Often that’s enough.

Inspiring People

People perform better when they’re motivated and one of a leader’s most important roles is to continually maximise motivation. That’s hard and it takes a lot of energy. Things don’t go well all of the time,  people don’t always feel great and circumstances or the actions of others quite often present obstacles to progress, not usually intentionally, but obstacles all the same. You can’t motivate people who are not motivated in the first place. Encourage and coach your team about their personal motivating factors (I’ve written previously about this) and support them in creating the scenarios in which they will find inspiration for themselves.

Being good at this takes a lot of thought and practice,  but here are some things you can consider. 

Do the other three aspects of leadership described above. Clarity, support and a shared mentality makes everyone feel safe and confident.

1. Give People the Tools and Skills

Depending who you work for providing training for your team might be easy or difficult.  Make sure it has a quantifiable benefit, is planned in advance and then lobby as hard as you can to get it. Get your team to think about the training they need, but think about it yourself on their behalf. Think about broader skills, not just the technical requirements for the role. It’s motivating to have others thinking about your needs. And don’t forget about training for yourself too.

2. Don’t Gush. You Can Overdo Motivation

Don’t motivate by celebrating every action with disproportionate praise. Make sure people feel valued with genuine praise. Give them a helping hand along the way to achieve more than they might otherwise, but let them take the credit. After all, it’s their achievement.

3. Let People Represent the Business From Time to Time

Conferences,  seminars etc. can be useful, although it’s often hard to determine in advance how useful, so be measured about them. But don’t hog the limelight and see such things as solely your privilege. Let someone else go,  explain they’re representing the business and ask them to present to the team when they return. If it was useful to them then chances are it’s useful to everyone to know what they’ve learnt.

Learn from Others

Good leaders aren’t difficult to spot. Watch, adapt and copy things you like. Don’t aspire to be an exact copy of someone else, but pick and choose the behaviours and traits that you see in a variety of others and work them into your own personal leadership style.

If you can find people in your own organisation, then all the better as you can get closer to them and understand how they really work, not just snippets you’ll pick up from watching so-called ‘great leaders’.

‘Bad’ Leaders

We’ve all seen people succeed as leaders despite their ‘bad’ leadership traits or at least those that don’t comply with the norms that most leadership training or business management courses will teach you. This is a difficult and complex subject that is beyond the scope of this post but warrants a mention. Sometimes extreme situations demand extreme behaviours. Other times what defines success is subjective and sometimes success looks different from different viewpoints. Observe and think about such leaders, by all means. But generally, there’s no smoke without fire and if they’re leading in ways that look wrong to you, then it’s probably unwise to model yourself on them.

Some Final Thoughts

Leadership can’t be taught, but leadership traits can be. But first, you need two things. Firstly you have to want to lead. Think hard about what this means before you apply for a leadership role. Secondly, you have to be prepared to practice those traits. Study them, apply them, refine them and develop your style within their framework. Lastly, and you’ll have seen the words scattered across this article, it’s not easy. It’s hard. It takes time, energy, commitment, effort.

You’ll have successes and failures. You might not like it and you might not be cut out to lead large, or senior or difficult teams. But in any role, in any walk of life, you can and you will lead and understanding a little more about yourself in that situation is always worthwhile.

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