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To have a great leadership career and be an effective leader, you need leadership skills.

Obvious, right?

The tricky part is understanding which leadership skills are the most important, and where we should put our focus. In this article, I aim to narrow it all down to the key leadership skills that are the most important for leading most effectively.

Leadership Skills vs. Leadership Traits

In this post I’m going to focus on leadership skills as opposed to leadership traits and I’d like to make a distinction here.

I feel that leadership skills can be more easily learned, and may be more useful to you. I consider leadership traits to be somewhat more innate and linked closely to who we are as people and our personality.

For example, driving a car is a skill. Some people are better than others at driving, but nobody drives a car without learning somehow.

On the other hand, having good reflexes and coordination can make you a better driver, but we have less control over whether we have good reflexes or not. Of course you can develop your reflexes through focused practice, but it will take time to get there.

So I consider leadership skills to be the concrete things you need (such as driving a car) and leadership traits are qualities which will help you excel (like good reflexes).

In this article we’ll look at leadership skills specifically and I’ll save leadership traits for another time.

Top Leadership Skills for Your Leadership Career

So here we go, with no further delays… I promise. The top leadership skills for having a great leadership career.

#1. Communication

Coming in at number one in the leadership skills list is our old friend communication. Communication skills are widely regarded as one of the biggest aspects influencing team performance and engagement at work.

Gallup’s recent State of the Global Workplace report states that a whopping 85% of adults worldwide don’t feel engaged at work.

Communication Leadership Skills

When looking deeper into this, I found Gallup’s Q12, which includes 12 statements to assess employee engagement. Six of these statements relate to communication. Here are some examples:

  • I know what is expected of me at work: For this to be true, leaders must communicate expectations.
  • At work, my opinions seems to count: This is all about two-way communication and listening to the opinions of team members.
  • In the last six months at work, someone has talked to me about my progress: Leadership means talking to team members about how they are doing, and providing feedback.

Pretty significant, right? So what can we do to improve?

Focus Areas for Leaders to Improve Communication Skills

To improve your communication skills, I suggest focusing on several areas:

  1. Setting clear expectations. Clear expectations are the foundation of accountability and help everyone understand what they need to do.
  2. Listening. Intentionally making time to listen to your team members and responding to their frustrations, complaints and opinions is critical to show that you care about what they have to say.
  3. Being present. Communication is about being present in the moment. Put your phone, laptop and fancy smart watch away or on silent mode and focus on what people are telling you.
  4. Providing feedback. People need to know where they stand and how they are doing. The only way to accomplish this is by providing feedback and helping people to improve.

Below are some more resources to help you improve your communication skills.

Learn More:  5 Good Communication Skills Every Leader Should Focus On.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #37: Communication Mistakes That Will Damage Your Leadership.

Learn More:  10 Simple & Effective Tips For Giving Feedback.

#2. Time Management

Being able to manage your time effectively is another critical leadership skill. In fact, I consider it to be one of the great leadership enablers.

Ariana Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post has this to say:

“We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in.”

Time management by itself won’t save you, or make you a great leader. But when you have poor time management skills, you and your leadership will become far less effective.

Strong Time Management skills will enable you to:

  • Time Management Leadership SkillsBe more available for your team: If you’re always busy and can’t be found, where can your team go for help and support?
  • Focus on what matters: A lot of work in our organisations is low value busywork. We need to focus on the important tasks and projects that bring the most benefit. Otherwise, we’re working longer hours, but not really getting better results.
  • Reduce stress: Working on the most valuable work and getting rid of the rest means you can work fewer hours and reduce stress on your team. Your mental health and wellbeing are important for you to sustain your effort, without burning out.

Now, let’s look at some of the key focus areas for you to improve your Time Management skills.

Focus Areas for Leaders to Improve Time Management Skills

To improve your Time Management skills, focus on the following:

  • Identifying your priorities. Too many leaders work on the basis that “everything is important”. That’s simply not true, so work out what really matters and focus on that.
  • Delegation. Delegating tasks means you distribute the load throughout your team. However, it’s not a silver bullet – you need to be careful not to overload team members. You should also try to delegate interesting tasks that help team members develop and learn new skills where you can.
  • Planning. Planning helps you to understand how long work takes, who will do it and whether your timelines are realistic. Better planning means fewer surprises and less stress!

Good time management is a critical leadership skill that will help you realise your potential and support your team! If you want to learn more, take a look at the resources below.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #63: “I Don’t Have Time” – Taking Back Control of Your Leadership.

Learn More:  3 Major Work Time Wasters That Create an Unhappy Team.

Learn More:  Top 5 Time Management Tips for Leaders.

Want to Build Your Time Management & Leadership Skills? Try my Online Course.

Time Management Online Course - Productive Leader With Logo

I know what it’s like to struggle with your workload and feel overwhelmed.

That’s why I created the Time Management for Leaders Online Course, to help you focus on what matters, feel more organised and get your important work done.

The course is self-paced and contains tools and techniques to help you manage your workload, improve productivity and achieve the right outcomes for your team.


#3. Strategic Thinking

Many people think of strategy as some sort of complicated rocket science. Sure, if you’re dealing with international business expansion and corporate mergers, there can be a lot to consider.

But when it comes to thinking strategically at an individual leader level, it’s simple.

You need to be thinking about the long term (not just until the weekend) and considering the actions you could take to get you to where you want to go.

Thinking strategically is one of the more important leadership skills because it involves forward thinking, rather than reactive, urgent action. In other words, you try to set your team and organisation up for success in the long run, rather than just jumping from crisis to crisis.

Strategic Thinking - Chess

Questions to Help You Think More Strategically

Here are some questions I like to ask to get into a more strategic mindset:

  1. Where do I want my team to be in the future? Do you have a vision of where you want your team to be? Perhaps this involves meeting certain targets or key performance indicators.
  2. What areas of my team need to improve? Are there areas of your team that are holding you back and reducing your effectiveness? Could you fix them to improve performance? This may involve better tools, improved processes or developing the skills of your team members.
  3. What do I need to do to prepare my team for the future? If your industry or organisation is going through change, are there actions you can take to prepare for what’s going to happen?
  4. Are there risks that need to be addressed? Maybe your team relies on one person to perform a critical task. What happens if they are sick or quit? Cross-skilling your team might be a good idea to reduce this type of risk.
  5. Are there development opportunities that could strengthen the team? The best teams are always improving. Team members are learning, developing and growing. But you don’t want them to leave after that. Are there ways you could help your team members grow while still having a role for them in your team or organisation?

Try asking these questions yourself and see if you can get into a more strategic mindset.

Learn More:  6 Critical Strategic Skills All Leaders Need.

#4. Pushing Back and Saying “No”

This leadership skill is related to time management, but it’s not quite the same thing. This is all about being able to say “No” at the right time.

Steve Jobs thought saying “No” was one of the most valuable leadership skills:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

— Steve Jobs

Being Able to Push Back and Say “No” Will Help You To:

  • Avoid taking on too many projects at the same time
  • Prevent you and your team from being put at risk by thoughtless stakeholders; and
  • Focus your effort on the work that matters.

Many people think that good advice is to say “Yes” to every opportunity that arises. While that can be good early in your career to try different options, over the long term you will take on too much and burn out.

Or at the very least, you’ll take on so much that you’ll be less effective across the board. Instead of doing a few things to a high level of quality, you’ll do many things poorly.

Focus Areas to Improve the Way You Say “No”

Pushing back is all about tone. If you don’t explain yourself and simply refuse to help people, you’ll be seen as obstructive and not a “team player”.

Here are some aspects to focus on to help you push back more effectively:

  • Explain your reasons. If you have good reasons for saying “No”, people are often more accepting of your decision.
  • Provide options. If you have too many projects on your plate, ask people to help you decide which is the most important, instead of agreeing to do everything.
  • Say “Yes”, but later. If you can’t do it right now, offer to help out later on if you can.
  • Negotiate. Maybe you can say “Yes”, if the other person helps take some of the load off your team first.
  • Could we do it this way instead? Instead of accepting the proposal that is thrown at you, try coming up with a better way. Perhaps the new way reduces risk, prevents unethical behaviour or takes less work.

Being able to push back is one of the most important leadership skills that will help you to safeguard the wellbeing of you and your team, so don’t underestimate it!

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #15: The Power of Pushing Back.

#5. Coaching

Coaching your team members is another valuable leadership skill that will help you to improve performance. You could just tell your team members what to do, but they’ll never really learn anything.

Coaching instead involves facilitating a conversation that enables your team members to solve their own problems. Of course, given that you are probably experienced in your field, you may also provide advice as a part of the process.

Coaching is about helping people solve their own problems, not just giving them the answer straight away. That way, they become more self-sufficient and confident, making your leadership role a little easier!

A Simple Model for Coaching Your Team Members

I’m a fan of the “COACH” model, which is nice and simple. You can see it illustrated below.

COACH Method

When having a coaching conversation, you first need to identify the Critical Issue to work on. Then you work together to identify what the ideal end result or Opportunity could be. After that, you should discuss anything they’ve tried already. What worked? What didn’t?

To start to get results, you then need to identify specific Actions that will help your team member get to where they want to be. For each action, try to understand how Committed they are to completing it. If they aren’t keen on a certain action, seek to understand why and remove any barriers that are holding them back.

Finally, you need to Hold Your Team Member Accountable by identifying ways to understand progress against the actions. This is a key ingredient to ensure they put in the effort and see results.

When Should You Coach Your Team Members?

Coaching conversations can be great when you’re trying to help your team members solve problems or develop their skills. However, the team member needs to be invested in the process and willing to participate.

Coaching a reluctant team member may not see the best results, as they aren’t really interested in the outcome.

Ideally, if you can align the development opportunities in your team with the aspirations of your team members, you will be able to have productive coaching conversations with team members who really want to improve.

There you have my top 5 leadership skills that I think will stand you in good stead in developing your leadership career.

All of us can be better leaders, and we can always improve these skills, so keep working on them and get the best out of yourself and your team.

What other leadership skills do you think are valuable for successful and effective leadership? I’d love to read about your experiences, so share them with me and the other Thoughtful Leaders in the comments below!

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