How to become a great leader: 10 tips, 7 traits, and 5 challenges

March 5, 2021 - 22 min read

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What is the difference between a regular leader and a great one?

What are the everyday challenges of being a good leader?

What are the crucial characteristics of great leaders?

Here’s how to become a great leader

When you think about great leaders, some names may pop up in your head — Steve Jobs, Kamala Harris, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, Ariana Huffington — and you can’t help wondering:

What made them special? 

Is there a secret to becoming a great leader?

Or it could be that, maybe, these leaders are the rarest of exceptions — so gifted as to be considered outside the boundaries of mortality?

The truth is, with support, motivation, and the right principles, anyone can grow into a great leader. Many great leaders started out as average people — they had to learn how to lead.

To help you, we’ll show you how to start learning how to become a good leader

And it all starts with the question:

What is the difference between a good leader and a great leader?

To answer this question, we must address a common misconception: leaders vs managers. 

What’s the difference?

Well, “manager” is a title — a hierarchy level within an organization. it's a top-down approach versus a bottom-up management approach

On the other hand, what does a leader do?

Lead, of course.

All leaders are managers in some way, but not all managers are leaders.

Remember: people can’t always choose their manager, but they can decide who to follow.  

So, the first step to becoming a great leader is to understand that leadership is more than just a position and making a conscious decision to be someone worth following.

Being a good leader involves developing exceptional emotional intelligence

Simon Sinek once said, "Leaders are often so concerned about their status and their position at the organization they actually forget their real job. And the real job of a leader isn’t about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in our charge."

For instance:

  • Regular leaders set goals. Great leaders come up with unique visions that are meaningful and inspire people.
  • Regular leaders are optimistic about the future.  Great leaders know how to cultivate optimism in others. They are practical thinkers who can go from visualization to actualization — they see both the big picture and granular details.
  • Regular leaders work within the status quo. Great leaders break conventional wisdom and see the possibilities for new ways of creating and delivering value.
  • Regular leaders focus on getting commitment. Great leaders know that to get a commitment, they must tap into passion and show people why and how following them will help them move toward their aspirations.

To go from being a good leader to a great leader, you must start by asking yourself:

  1. Am I truly and genuinely doing my best?
  2. What are my top areas of improvement?
  3. How can I set a more meaningful vision that inspires my people
  4. What can I do to better understand what my people want
  5. What do my people need from me?

By answering some of these questions, you’ll get valuable insights into the steps you should take. 

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Why is leadership important?

The truth is we all are leaders in some way. 

Whether you’re parenting a family, captaining a team, heading a department, or running a corporation, you need to lead. If you want your family, team, department, or corporation to follow for very long, you also need to lead thoughtfully and be the leader they need. 

In case you think the trend toward flat organizations and employee empowerment means leaders are less important, think again. Humans tend to depend on hierarchy. In flat and distributed structures with fewer formal levels of authority, leadership is even more important. Without it, no group can survive very long. 

So, the question here isn’t “Am I a leader?” It isn't even, “Am I a great leader?” The question is, "Am I being the best leader possible for the situation at hand, based on the needs of the people who need my leadership?"

Develop a range of leadership techniques and behaviors so that you have more to draw from. Only when it is no longer about you, and you stop thinking about greatness, can you achieve great leadership. 

In this globalized economy, employees are becoming more and more conscious of the importance of good leadership in their organizations. Even more important, they’ve higher leadership expectations of the person they choose to follow. 

In short, developing solid interpersonal and collaboration skills isn’t optional, but a necessity for anyone who aspires to have a meaningful career (and life).

 

6 benefits of outstanding leadership

Now that you understand the importance of exceptional leadership, let’s talk about some of the benefits of great leadership in the workplace.

  • More commitment from employees: people happily follow leaders whose vision helps them get closer to their goals (both personal and professional).
  • Improve productivity: when employees feel good both mentally and emotionally, they work harder and more proactively.
  • Nurture future leaders: knowing your people to the core helps you spot potential leaders early on.
  • Build a cohesive team: a great leader is the glue that keeps a team together, working for a shared goal. 
  • Foster meaningful work and meaningful relationships: effective leadership is more than just leading people, it’s about giving a purpose — the pursuit of a worthy ideal.
  • Increase employee engagement: remember that most people don’t quit a job, they quit a boss. A leader that empowers employees will increase both employee retention rates and employee engagement

What are the everyday challenges of being a good leader?

Any leader will, eventually, face some challenges.

According to research from Gallup, the manager alone is accountable for 70% of the variance in team engagement.

Still, surveys reveal that roughly 58% of managers state they never received training on leadership before being promoted.

What does this mean for you?

Being a leader is a huge responsibility. 

And people will expect you’re ready, even if you never receive training. 

If you want to become great at leading people, you must acknowledge the fact that leadership is tough and prepare yourself for the challenges you’ll face beforehand.

Some of these challenges include: 

Earning the trust of your employees

A study a few years ago claimed that employees trust strangers more than their own boss.

I’m not sure if that statement is true, but we can’t argue earning someone’s trust is hard — really hard — especially if that person has had bad experiences in the past.

And it requires time. 

You need to share a couple of experiences with your employees before they start to trust you. And, often, losing that trust is easier than earning it. 

As a leader, you must take building trust within your team seriously. 

Dealing with pressure and stress

Making decisions is one of the core duties of any great leader.

And some of these decisions will be tough — firing people, choosing between two great candidates for a specific role, or moving an employee to a different department because they’re no longer performing well.


A guy being pressured by two giant fists - how to become a leader

Sometimes, people will get mad at you.

Other times, you’ll have to make the decision under tons of pressure. 

So, this is something you must embrace and learn to deal with. As a leader, dealing with your own stress management at work is important.

Make time for your own self-care, not just that our your team. 

Managing difficult people

Being a leader doesn’t mean people will always like you, and vice versa. You’ll deal with employees who don’t share your values and who resist following directions. But great leaders don’t avoid conflict, they deal with this friction and learn to communicate clearly. 

Your employee who is difficult or won’t follow directions is an important source of information, either about your own management style or about the customer or product. Don’t squander the opportunity to learn from someone who disagrees. They might be motivated by a passion for making a bigger impact. They might have a different perspective or hold the clue for a new approach that will drive value for the company. 

These gifts don’t always come in pleasant packaging. That’s why developing solid interpersonal skills is crucial for an exceptional leader.

What are the crucial characteristics of great leaders?

Now, even though there are many styles of leadership, all great leaders share specific traits. 

Let’s break some of them down:

  • Good listeners: good leaders know that listening is the key to great communication, so they always prioritize listening over talking.
  • Constant learners: effective leaders always seek to learn from other people’s experiences — whether it’s from books, courses, and mentors, they’re always learning. In short, cultivating a growth mindset is crucial to being an effective leader.
  • Service-driven: good leaders know that to influence people is to help them achieve what they want, so they start by serving others before asking for something.
  • Healthy: great leaders understand that to make their greatest contribution, they must take care of their body and mental fitness, which is essential to staying productive.
  • Accountable: leaders don't blame others for the decisions they make and they own whatever results.
  • Focused: good leaders understand what is most important and channel their efforts to it.
  • Empathetic and compassionate: effective leaders are emotionally wise and care about helping people in specific ways. 

Now, keep in mind this isn’t a comprehensive list of all the characteristics of great leaders, but it includes some of the main ones.

To learn further, we suggest you read some of these BetterUp guides:

Here’s how to become a great leader

At this point, you’re probably wondering how to become a great leader. And to be honest, being a leader is a bit like being a parent: there’s no step-by-step approach — no manual. 

However, let’s talk about some tips that’ll help you start on solid ground.

Start on the inside 

Great leaders always manage themselves. To manage yourself you first have to know yourself.  Great leaders understand their own motivations and where they have the most room to learn and grow. A good place to start is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. 

Start by performing a self-audit to discover how you perform best and where you could make your greatest contribution. How do you learn? How do you communicate? Are you a listener, a writer, or do you communicate through doing? Do you work best with small or large groups? Cohesion or tension?

list of strengths and weaknesses - how to become a leader

(Image Source)

Then, ask some of your peers to help you out. 

Some helpful questions include:

  • What are my strengths? What can you count on me for?
  • What am I the best at in the world?
  • What are my weaknesses? What can you not count on me for?

The answer to these questions will help you find out a leadership style that suits your personality. 

Show appreciation to your employees

Knowing yourself isn’t always enough. 

To manage and lead people, you must know them too.

If you don’t know their motivations, values, beliefs, and even fears, you’ll struggle to get a commitment from them.

Now, this doesn’t mean you must be friends with all of your employees. That would not only be hard, but unproductive. 

Sometimes listening carefully is just enough. 

People want to feel essential in the organization.

Research from Harvard Business Review reveals that 40% of employees would work harder if they were recognized more

So, make your employees feel appreciated recognized and they’ll return the favor.

Find a mentor

My grandma once told me that “to grow wise, you must learn from other people’s experiences.”

Remember that there’s always room to grow. 

Look for someone who has already overcome the challenges you’re currently facing and who has way more experience in your field. 

If there’s a “shortcut” to success, finding a mentor or coach is definitely it.

Besides, learning from a mentor will teach you how to mentor those you lead too. 

Learn to be a team player

Michael Jordan once said that “talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

A group of people helping each other - how to become a leader

(Image Source)

He’s right.

No matter how good of a manager you are or how smart and talented you feel, if you try to do all the work yourself, you’ll get burned out — delegating work is one of the core skills of any great leader.

So, how do you become a team player in the workplace?

It all starts with the intention. 

Celebrate your peers’ success, appreciate other people’s work, be reliable and open-minded, and people will give you their trust. 

Once they trust you, it’ll be much easier to build a cohesive team that gets the work done efficiently.

Define a clear priority

People don’t necessarily follow a person. Many follow a mission. 

As coach and BetterUp author, Sarah Greenberg, put it:

“To support a strong sense of purpose in your team, the best action is to make sure your actions as an organization truly do align with a larger, worthwhile mission. Second, provide opportunities for your team members to connect with a purpose beyond the self in a way that can be self-directed, and based on intrinsic motivation.”

To lead people, you must have a clear, tangible goal that’s worth pursuing. 

So, the first step to becoming a successful leader is to understand what your main goal is — what’s your priority?

Keep in mind I didn’t say “priorities,” but “priority.”

The truth is we can’t have multiple priorities, especially if you’re in a leadership position. 

For example, Southwest Airlines is known as “the low fare airline.”

One time, someone asked Herb Kelleher, co-founder, and CEO of Southwest Airlines, to share his secret to managing his business.

He answered: ”We are the low-fare airline. Once you understand this fact, you can make any decision about the company’s future as well as I can”.

He then added:

“Let’s say someone from the marketing department says to you that, based on research, passengers might like a chicken salad during their trip. How would you respond?”

Since the person didn’t have an answer, Kelleher replied:

“Will a chicken salad contribute to making us the low-fare airline? Because if it doesn’t, we aren’t serving any damn chicken salad.”

Southwest Airlines’ employees know how to make decisions because they understand the priority: be the low-fare airline, period.

To build an effective team, you must define and communicate a clear priority.

Get your hands dirty

Humility is the lubricant oil that minimizes friction within a team. And “getting your hands dirty” is one of the best ways of staying humble. 

Lead by example.

Never ask an employee to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. 

Serve people before asking for a favor, listen to other people’s ideas, be open-minded, and be willing to admit your mistakes. 

People respect leaders who embrace humility.

Ready to become a great leader?

Being a leader isn’t about giving orders, or getting compliance, and not even about building one-on-one relationships with employees.

Being a great leader is all about building a solid culture — one that helps the team grow and fulfill its true potential.

Not because they have to, but because they want to — because they’re committed to your cause. 

Yes, it’ll be hard.

Yes, you’ll face a myriad of challenges.

Yes, you’ll make sacrifices — tons of them.

But in the end, it’ll all be worth it.

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Published March 5, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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