10 Most Important Leadership Skills For The 21st Century Workplace (And How To Develop Them)
8 August 2022
With the rise of the gig economy and with many companies adopting flatter, more flexible organizational structures, now is the perfect time to refocus on what good leadership looks like. Because, in our rapidly changing workplaces, leadership will apply to more people than ever before. You may be overseeing a project that requires you to coordinate several team members. Or you may be a gig worker collaborating with other gig workers. Or you may be occupying a traditional management role. Whatever your job title, this precious ability to bring out the best in people will be a vital part of success.
Of course, being a good leader really requires us to polish up multiple skills at once. Here are ten skills that I think are essential for leaders – with a few pointers on how to develop them.
1. Motivating others
The ability to motivate others is all part of inspiring people to be the best they can be. So how can you better motivate others?
- Ensure people know how their role contributes to the company’s vision. That their work matters, basically.
- Be clear on what you need people to do, why, and when. But, importantly, give people the autonomy to accomplish those tasks their way.
- Show your appreciation and celebrate success.
2. Fostering potential
Great leaders look for potential, not performance. Here are three ways to foster potential:
- Don’t fall into the trap of getting people to think and act like you. Encourage them to think and act like them.
- Let people know that it’s okay to fail sometimes. This is all part of inspiring people to take risks, step outside their comfort zone and test new ideas.
- Don’t let people grow complacent. Encourage them to develop their skills and think about the next stage of their career, whatever that may be.
3. Inspiring trust
What makes a leader trustworthy? The following behaviors are a good start:
- Being ethical. This means being honest and transparent, keeping promises, and generally making sure you don't say one thing and then do another.
- Making your values clear and, of course, living those values.
- Standing up for what you believe in.
4. Taking on and giving up responsibility
Good leaders take on responsibility, but they also know when to let go of responsibility and delegate to others. When doing this, try to:
- Play to the strengths of those around you and allocate responsibility accordingly.
- Ensure people have the knowledge, resources, and tools they need to succeed.
- Decide how you'll monitor progress without micromanaging. For example, you can agree on how the person will report back to you and how often – as well as the best way for them to raise any questions.
5. Thinking strategically
Strategic thinking requires leaders to take a wider view, so they can solve business problems and make a long-term plan for the future. To enhance your strategic thinking skills:
- Remember the difference between urgent and important. Urgent fire-fighting tasks can suck up a lot of your time and energy, leaving very little bandwidth for those things that are important from a big-picture perspective but not urgent. Constantly remind yourself of your priorities, and manage your time accordingly.
- Use critical thinking to gather data and find solutions to your most pressing strategic questions. For example, “Where will our growth come from in three or five years’ time?”
- Don’t rely on assumptions or gut instincts when answering such questions.
6. Setting goals and expectations for everyone
Setting goals is a great way to drive performance. But have you considered a more dynamic way of setting goals?
- Instead of the traditional, top-down approach (where leadership sets strategic goals, then managers set goals for teams and individuals), you might like to consider the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) approach.
- With OKRs, leadership sets some strategic OKRs for the business, then each team and individual designs their own OKRs that contribute to achieving the company's strategic OKRs.
- OKRs should be simple and agile. Forget annual goal-setting; OKRs are typically set on a monthly or quarterly basis.
If you’d like to know more about OKRs, check out my related articles.
7. Giving (and receiving) feedback
Good leaders are able to give and receive feedback, both positive and negative (or, as I prefer to call it, constructive). When it comes to giving people constructive feedback:
- Don’t put it off. You don’t want to overwhelm someone with a loooong list of everything they’re getting wrong. Instead, have a process in place for regular catchups, where you can chat through progress and give feedback
- Don’t dilute constructive feedback with praise. While it’s important to regularly give people praise, I wouldn’t do it at the same time as constructive feedback. When you sandwich negative comments with a positive comment on either side, there's a risk the person may only hear the good stuff.
- Be specific, not emotional. Just treat it as a straightforward conversation, using specific, concrete examples instead of opinions or emotions.
8. Team building
A good leader is a bit like a football manager in that they have to pick strong players who perform different roles and then shape those players into a cohesive unit. As part of this:
- Remember, each person will bring their own unique skills and experiences, be motivated by different things, have different working styles, and so on. Embrace this rather than trying to get everyone to behave the same way.
- Model the behaviors you want to see: connecting as human beings, showing an interest, listening to each other, treating people with respect and dignity, and supporting one another.
- Give feedback and reward a job well done.
If you show up with a negative “this won’t work, that thing sucks, why do we bother” kind of attitude, it’ll soon spread throughout your team. Here’s how to lead from a place of positivity:
- Think carefully about the language you use, verbally and in writing. Use words with positive connotations – turning a “problem” into an “opportunity” being a prime example.
- Celebrate successes, big and small. Highlighting the little wins frequently can be just as impactful as sporadically celebrating the big wins.
- Resist the urge to complain in front of your team. As Tom Hanks says to his band of soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, "Gripes go up, not down. Always up."
For me, being an authentic leader is a key part of building trust. So as well as being ethical (see earlier), you’ll want to:
- Practice self-awareness. A good leader is aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
- Be open about those weaknesses rather than trying to hide them.
- Bring your whole self to work, as opposed to having one persona for work and one outside of work.
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