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A guide to becoming an effective leader

April 3, 2021 - 16 min read


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Are effective leaders born or made?

Differentiating managers from leaders

What makes an effective leader?

4 signs that you are not an effective leader

Tips to become a more effective leader at work


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If you’ve ever worked with a leader who wasn’t very effective, you know that poor leadership comes at a cost.

Working with an ineffective leader can be demotivating or demoralizing, which may hamper your productivity and ability to reach your goals. This, in turn, can adversely impact business results. 

Effective leadership, on the other hand, results in increased employee happiness, engagement, and retention rates. But that’s not all. An engaged workforce leads to 17% higher productivity, a 10% increase in customer ratings, a 20% increase in sales, and 21% greater profitability.

While few would argue with the importance of effective leadership, it can often seem like an elusive idea. What is effective leadership? What are the most important leadership qualities?  Can anyone learn how to become an effective leader and, if so, how?

This article will dive into these questions, and more.

Are effective leaders born or made?

Let’s begin by addressing this commonly asked question about whether it makes sense to invest one’s time and energy in trying to become a more effective leader. Because if leaders are born with inherent qualities that can’t be developed, why waste time in fighting a battle that’s already been lost? 

Fortunately, research indicates that leaders are “mostly made.” This means that while there are aspects of leadership that come more naturally to some people than to others, a majority of leadership qualities can be developed. In other words, anyone can learn how to be an effective leader. It requires commitment and hard work, but it is possible.

This is also good news because the most critical skills for leaders have changed over time.


Differentiating managers from leaders

What comes to mind when you hear the words “manager” and “leader”? Would you say they mean the same thing? If not, what is the important difference between leader versus manager? While these words are sometimes used interchangeably, they point to different functions a person might perform. 

It was once believed that effectively managing an organization was mainly a matter of managing its structures and processes. In 1977, Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik challenged this view, arguing that there was another aspect to management. That is, the one concerned with vision, inspiration, and the human side of things. 

Building on Zaleznik’s work, John P. Kotter argued that effectively managing organizations required a balance between management and leadership, which are two different things. 

Here are some of the key differences between a manager and an effective leader: 

  • Managers follow processes and prioritize stability and control. Leaders are more willing to challenge the status quo and tend to be more patient with chaos and a lack of structure. 

  • Managers are focused on specific processes, including planning, budgeting, organizing, and staffing. Leaders are concerned with creating a vision and effectively guiding people through change.

  • Managers usually have positional authority in organizational hierarchy. Leaders may have authority, but it’s not a necessary condition for demonstrating leadership. People at any level in the organization can be great leaders.

  • Managers exercise control to get their teams to deliver the desired results. Leaders encourage autonomy so that team members are self-motivated to do what is needed.

It is important to note that these differences don't make one approach better than the other. Organizations need strong managers as well as effective leaders. However, it has been argued that many organizations today are over-managed and under-led. This makes it important for more people to develop effective leadership skills.


What makes an effective leader?

There isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to effective leadership. Research suggests that leading from one’s unique strengths yields better results than trying to emulate other leaders. 

This makes sense, as effective leaders come in diverse forms, and fit the needs of diverse organizations. Retired general Colin Powell’s leadership style was undoubtedly very different from wellness advocate Arianna Huffington’s style. Each is effective because they know and embrace their strengths, while also acknowledging and managing their weaknesses, within a culture that suits them.

In its quest to find what makes the most effective leaders, Gallup analyzed decades of data gathered from thousands of leaders as well as their “followers.” They found that the most effective leaders exhibit three key qualities

  1. Focusing on strengths. The most effective leaders consistently focus on the strengths of their team members. This can help each team member feel empowered to do their best work and contribute to achieving the team’s goals. In turn, focusing on strengths usually leads to higher employee engagement and well-being, and gains in the organization’s bottom line.
  2. Forming well-rounded teams. Effective leaders recognize that they can’t excel at everything. To overcome this challenge, they surround themselves with people who have complementary strengths, qualities, and skill sets. This results in well-rounded, high-performing teams.
  3. Understanding their followers’ needs. Effective leaders understand and honor four basic needs that followers have: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. People are motivated to work with leaders they can depend on, and who genuinely care about them, provide a solid and reliable foundation, and inspire hope for the future.

A combination of these qualities, along with self-awareness, are important factors that make an effective leader. 

Some other traits effective leaders have in common include:

  1. Excellent communication skills. An effective leader can clearly communicate their vision, provide constructive feedback to team members, and negotiate with other company leaders for things their team needs.
  2. High emotional intelligence. Great leaders develop their emotional regulation skills. They must be able to identify, control, and express their emotions in a productive manner, and guide their team members toward doing the same.
  3. Empathy. The best leaders are able to empathize, or understand and share feelings, with their team members.
  4. Integrity. Effective leaders live by strong values that guide their decisions and behaviors. They know right from wrong, are honest in their interactions with others, and practice ethical leadership.
  5. Creativity. Effective leaders think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions to business problems and creative ways to reach business goals. They know that creativity is for everyone.

4 signs that you are not an effective leader

Every leader always has room for improvement, though some may need more development than others. Some signs that you may not be an effective leader include:

  1. Your team members are disengaged. If your team is simply going through the motions, completing their assigned tasks, and nothing more, you may have a disengaged team on your hands. This could be a sign that you’re not properly inspiring, motivating, and enabling them to do their best work.
  2. Your team is consistently failing to meet goals. It’s normal not to meet all of your goals, all of the time, but it is a problem when it happens consistently. This could be a sign that you need to communicate better with company leaders around more attainable goals or additional resources you need. Or, it could be a signal that your team is disengaged and that you need to lead them more effectively.
  3. Nobody speaks up with feedback during meetings. Effective leaders encourage team members to share their opinions and ideas. If your team holds back during meetings, they might not feel comfortable doing so. This can hinder your team’s ability to solve business problems in a more efficient, productive way.
  4. Your team has a low promotion rate. Great leaders develop their team members, help them build career paths, and sponsor them for promotions when the time is right. If your team has a low promotion rate, high time to promotion, or a high turnover rate due to lack of career progression, you may need to work on employee development.

Tips to become a more effective leader at work

Leadership skills and traits can — and should — be learned and developed. The skills needed to be an effective leader adapt with the times. BetterUp research has shown that being an inclusive leader has a positive ripple effect on the entire team. Hybrid work has changed how leaders lead inclusively across a hybrid team. Here are some areas you may want to work on:

  1. Know thyself. One of the most important steps you can take to be an effective leader is to become more aware of your strengths, weaknesses, values, behaviors, and the impact you have on other people. Self-reflection is a good place to start becoming more self-aware, but it’s not enough. Actively seeking feedback from your team and your colleagues is also an important aspect of self-awareness. Many organizations use 360 assessments, which can be a great tool to have at your disposal. 
  2. Demonstrate honesty and integrity. Trustworthiness is an important quality in leaders. It’s crucial that you maintain the highest levels of integrity and remain open and honest in your interactions with your team. Can you think of leaders you find easy to trust? What makes them trustworthy? What can you learn from them?
  3. Invest time in coaching and developing others. Effective leaders take a genuine interest in the growth and development of the people they work with. Take interest in learning about the goals and aspirations of your team members and play an active role in helping them grow and develop. This will help you better understand their needs and support them more effectively. 
  4. Develop and demonstrate emotional intelligence. Being able to effectively manage your own emotions—and those of the people around you—is an important skill known as emotional intelligence. This is a necessary skill if you want to offer stability and hope to your team, especially during challenging times. If you feel you are not particularly good at emotional intelligence, it might be worthwhile to invest time in developing this skill.
  5. Learn how to have difficult conversations. As a leader, you will inevitably find yourself in situations where you need to share unpleasant news with someone or where you need to disagree with someone without offending them. Being able to have difficult conversations while maintaining—and even building—trust is an important aspect of effective leadership.
  6. Focus on the whole person. People like to work for leaders who care about them as human beings—not just as human resources. Spend time getting to know your team members on a personal level and build relationships with them. If you are compassionate and care for their overall well-being, they are more likely to go above and beyond for what you ask of them.

Final thoughts on how to be an effective leader

Leadership is not a mystical quality and anyone can become a more effective leader by developing some important skills. Managing managers can also be more complex and complicated. But with coaching, you can develop thriving leaders that lead to a thriving workforce. New call-to-action

Published April 3, 2021

Yashi Srivastava

BetterUp Coach, MAPP, CPCC

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