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Leadership

Practice the skills needed for effective leadership in today's workplace

By: Corey R. Seemiller, Editor in Chief

Imagine you have just been asked to take on a leadership position in your organization. You are excited about the opportunity and are happy to know that other members trust you with this important role. But, then you think?

  • How do I ensure the organization is moving in the right direction? Actually, what is the right direction?
  • What do I do to make sure everyone feels welcome and included?
  • How can I help us solve problems that arise?
  • What do I do if there is conflict?

These questions may seem overwhelming. But, just like you wouldn’t learn how to swim by jumping into the deep end of a pool and trying to keep your head above water, you wouldn’t necessarily learn good leadership habits by simply being in a leadership role. The good news is that there is a lot of information available to help you develop the competencies you need to engage in effective leadership.

What Is Leadership?

Over the past several generations, scholars and practitioners have been crafting definitions of leadership. Yet, no universal definition has ever been adopted. The same is true when it comes to developing one universal leadership theory. George R. Goethals and Georgia Sorensen, prominent leadership scholars, discuss this challenge in their book, The Quest For a General Theory of Leadership. Despite the variation in definitions and theories, many contemporary scholars agree on one thing: leadership is a process that involves influencing people or causes in an effort to work toward a shared goal. In this resource, you will find 10 skills that can help you develop the competencies you need to engage in the leadership process.

Self-Awareness and Behavior

Leading begins with knowing yourself and seeking out opportunities for continued development. In essence, leadership starts with self-awareness. For example, what are your values, passions, and strengths? How open are you to being vulnerable and receiving feedback? With self-awareness, you can help clarify what you care about and find ways to best leverage your capacities to lead.

Another important skill is the ability to make things happen, or perseverance. By enhancing your self-awareness, you can uncover what motivates you to take initiative and persist with a long-term endeavor even when faced with obstacles, detours, and failures.

Working With Others

As you increase your self-awareness, it’s also essential to reflect on your level of cultural competence. What can you do to embrace a variety of diverse perspectives and worldviews? How can you foster spaces that welcome and encourage all voices while advocating for inclusion and social justice? Being culturally competent not only expands your horizons but can also enhance the belongingness of members and create space to generate diverse and innovative ideas.

Interpersonal interaction plays an important role in leadership as being able to collaborate, share diverse ideas in an open environment, and offer support to one another can lead to both a better outcome and a better overall experience for those involved. Are you able to engage in emotional intelligence, build trust, demonstrate vulnerability, and foster empathy to contribute to meaningful interpersonal interactions?

Interpersonal interaction also involves the ability to effectively communicate. You can probably recall a negative communication experience in your life, possibly resulting in a misunderstanding, strain on a relationship, or unsuccessful project. Leaders, however, need to be able to listen to others, appropriately convey a message, mitigate their biases, and effectively deal with conflict.

While many interpersonal interactions occur one-on-one, they also take place in groups, teams, and organizations with multiple individuals at once. Think about a time when you worked with others on a project and everyone just seemed to click. While that experience is the ideal goal, it’s important to note that positive group dynamics often do not happen by chance. That is why it is crucial that the leader models expectations, builds connections between members, facilitates discussions on goals and strategies, and mitigates power dynamics.

Critical Thinking and Reasoning

Whether faced with a personal ethical dilemma or a call to usher the organization through a difficult choice, the leader plays a critical role in recognizing moral issues and acting in alignment with individual or organizational values. Further, leaders understand that they, their organization, and the other members are part of a larger ecosystem where one’s actions can and do affect others. How can you assess a situation, make a values-based decision, and embody the courage it takes to engage in ethical behavior?

Leadership is proactive and future-oriented, requiring strategic planning. For example, what is your organization’s vision, mission, goals, and strategies? As a leader, it is essential to engage in the strategic planning process. And, it is imperative that this process is inclusive with measurable outcomes so the whole team knows where they are going, how they plan to get there, and the identified checkpoint that will help them know when they have arrived.

It’s important to remember that leadership is not always easy, even if everyone gets along and the organization is moving toward an agreed-upon vision. There will be problems; some you will be able to foresee and plan ahead for, whereas others will emerge unannounced. Regardless of the type of problem, leaders are able to mobilize people and resources to engage in creative problem solving to generate solutions to complex issues.

As we come full circle back to the notion of process-oriented leadership, it is important to remember the role of influence. Whether influencing a person or influencing a cause, leaders must be able to inspire, persuade, or model the behaviors needed to reach the goal at hand.

The Many Roads to Leadership

In reading this, you might be asking yourself, “Can I lead without being in a formal leadership position?” Absolutely. For one, you can lead from any level within a group. You can influence others and help shape group dynamics as the president of your organization, but you can also do so as a general member. You can solve problems by being the supervisor, but you can also come up with creative solutions as an everyday employee. You can engage in inclusive practices through your role on a formal committee, or you can simply share ideas to help make your social circle more inclusive. Leadership, in this sense, is more about influence rather than position.

You might also be asking yourself, “Do I need followers to be a leader?” Many scholars assert that a person can engage in self-leadership without followers. While leadership involves influence, that influence doesn’t always have to stem from direct interaction with another person. For example, picking up and properly disposing of trash on campus fosters stewardship. Over time, seeing a clean campus may inspire others to litter less or help with cleanup efforts themselves. In addition, signing a petition supporting a cause you care about fosters community engagement and advocacy. While you aren’t leading others to sign the petition too, your advocacy is potentially contributing to larger social change of collective leadership. So, whether you are in a formal leadership role, serve as a general member of an organization, or simply act individually, you can be a leader.

Further Reading
  • Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2017). Reframing organizations (6th ed.). Jossey-Bass.
  • Bordas, J. (2012). Salsa, soul, and spirit: Leadership for a multicultural age (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Gallup. (2017). CliftonStrengths for students. Gallup Press.
  • Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Harvard Business School Press.
  • Middlebrooks, A., Allen, S. J., McNutt, M. S., & Morrison, J. L. (2019). Discovering leadership: Designing your success. SAGE.
  • Shankman, M. L., Allen, S. J., & Haber-Curran, P. (2015). Emotionally intelligent leadership: A guide for students (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
  • Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Wren, J. T. (1995). The leader’s companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. Free Press.
  • von Oech, R. (1988). A whack on the side of the head: How to unlock your mind for innovation. Warner Books.
Page citation: Seemiller, C. R. (2021). Leadership. SAGE Skills: Business. https://sk.sagepub.com/skills/business/leadership