What is an effective leader?
Some of the questions I commonly receive as an accredited leadership trainer and a credentialed Life and Transformation coach when I’m facilitating my leadership skills program is “What is an effective leader?”, “What is effective leadership?” or “How do effective leaders behave?”
I always like to start with what effective leadership isn’t.
Leadership isn’t a position.
The response I gave at a recent program I facilitated to a group of wine industry players in the Helderberg area in the Western Cape was that leadership isn’t a position applicable to a select few, but effective leadership is, instead, a set of skills and actions that can be learned and developed.
Types of leadership
In the world of leadership there are various types mentioned:
Servant-based leadership, values-based leadership, authoritative leadership, participative leadership, delegatory leadership, transactional leadership, and transformational leadership, to name a few.
As a transformational coach and leadership trainer, my understanding is that there is also “effective holistic leadership.”
What is Effective Holistic Leadership?
Effective holistic leadership starts with us looking inwards, taking note of what makes us unique and how it applies to both our personal and professional lives. By understanding what makes us unique, we can lead our way through life.
Understanding who we are makes it easier to acknowledge and understand that those around us are also unique – this, in turn, makes it easier to lead those around us – in our teams, collaborations etc.
We are all unique, with different strengths, talents, limitations, and triggers – both debilitating and motivating. If we are first able to identify them and understand how they affect us personally and how to best work with them, we can more easily develop and hone the skills and actions that transform us into leaders.
Learning to Become an Effective Leader
Effective leadership isn’t simply associating leadership with a position. It’s a process of learning and developing skills and actions so that we act consistently and “become” a leader.
Effective leadership promotes the growth and development both of ourselves and those around us while contributing to our growth and development, and to those around us – our teams, colleagues, partners, etc.
It’s about a state of being that’s motivating to us and those around us while comfortably leading both ourselves and them.
The combination of our self-understanding, our understanding of those around us, and this state of being also contributes to effectively determining our desired outcomes – whether personal or within a team environment, and creates the motivation and commitment needed to pursue the outcome, which leads to a greater chance of success in achieving them.
Why I mention that this is a holistic approach to effective leadership is because:
A. It is about understanding ourselves and others.
B. It can be incorporated into our professional and personal lives.
C. It’s based on the idea that it’s not about “me, me, me, – I’m the leader, follow me,” but a collective development and contribution by all concerned.
This is the reason I call my leadership skills training program Thriving in Life: Effective Leadership Skills Training.
There are more traits associated with leadership and the following is a breakdown of what I focus on. They are not in an order of importance.
An Effective Leader is (Self) Aware
Building awareness and self-awareness highlight the need to understand that we and others are unique. We all have certain values, beliefs, talents, strengths, limitations, and triggers. If we take the time out to explore these in ourselves and are aware of them in those around us it contributes to our interpersonal skills, which I believe is the cornerstone of effective leadership.
The other importance of being self-aware and aware of those around us is that it helps when it comes to delegating tasks to those people whose strengths are in line with those tasks.
In a recent program I facilitated in Stellenbosch, one of the participants raised a great point when she said:
“Throughout my life, I’ve always asked people what they think I should do, as I never had the confidence to decide for myself. I’ve also been one to be quite opinionated about others’ lives. Doing the self-awareness exercises, which felt quite daunting, meant that I suddenly had to look inwards looking at my own values, strengths, talents, triggers etc. Even though I found this quite taxing – self-reflection – it was liberating too: understanding what it is that makes me do certain things and react in certain ways.”
An Effective Leader is Confident
Confidence comes from self-belief, and self-belief comes from self-awareness. It also comes from preparation, while realising that we will make mistakes – as we all do – but understanding that we can learn from them.
A confident leader is also someone who realises that answers to solutions can come from those around us and be confident enough to acknowledge that, and not have the need to continuously hog the limelight.
Effective Leaders are Empathetic
Empathy is not about always being warm and friendly; it’s making a concerted effort to understand.
It’s not asking: “What would I have done in that situation?”, but rather asking: “Why did they do what they did?”
We all have different energy levels, mood swings, triggers, and issues, and for that reason, we react to and deal with, situations differently.
Empathy is the understanding of this, and it comes from being aware of those around us.
A common thread I’ve found while covering this module in my effective leadership program in the film industry is the question: “How do I know if someone has a real issue or they’re just trying to take advantage of me to get out of doing work?”
I must say I was surprised how many times this question came up, and my response is that – with a combination of confidence and empathy – we are able to give the benefit of the doubt, and if we are aware of those around us sooner rather than later, we will notice the trend within that person trying to take advantage of us and the situation. How we deal with it is about combining accountability and communicating effectively, which is something that I deal with in the program.
Effective Communication is a critical skill
Communication consists of talking and listening – not listening to reply but listening to understand.
To communicate we need to elaborate what, why, by when, and by whom effectively, and then we need to take the time to listen. Listening is so important, as not only are we able to gather information, but it also acknowledges the other person(s).
Listening builds rapport, which is crucial for team building and for allowing people to be comfortable enough to open up, contribute, and share information.
Effective communication contributes massively towards how we act as a leader especially when it comes to feedback, praise and conflict resolution all of which must be presented in a way that takes into account the individuality of the recipient.
An Effective Leader is Accountable
One of the first questions that I ask the groups that I work with is: “What is accountability?”, to which the response is almost always “To be responsible.”
And then I ask: “What is needed for accountability?”
Very seldom do I get the answer that I’m looking for.
There are two crucial elements needed for accountability.
- Communication – nothing can be lost in translation
At times we know what we want someone to do, but we don’t communicate the what, why, and by when effectively, which results in a breakdown of expectations.
We can’t hold someone accountable, ourselves included, unless we know what the expectations are.
Being accountable also builds trust. If I say I’m going to do something and I do it, trust is built both within myself and the other. However, if I don’t do what I say then the trust is affected, and that could lead to a slippery slope downhill and could take time to rebuild.
An Effective Leader is Creative
When I talk about the leadership traits that I workshop in my effective leadership skills program, people are quite surprised that I don’t mention bravery. The reason is that bravery falls under the banner of “creativity.”
To be an effective leader is to be creative because we must try new things, we must be prepared to be wrong, we need to make connections, and we need to solve problems because all of this not only contributes to innovation, but it also alleviates boredom and stagnation.
To act as an effective leader is to be creative, and to be creative, one needs to be brave and act as a leader.
Effective Leaders are Adaptable
The interesting thing about adaptability is that we only feel the need to adapt when things aren’t going well. Adaptability is either changing the situation, changing to fit into the situation or – if we are contributing negatively to the situation – making a personal change.
The issue arises when we are stubborn, rigid, hard-headed, and fearful of change. But, in the Thriving in Life: Effective Leadership Skills Program there is an easy challenge-solving formula that contributes to seamlessly adapting.
An Effective Leader is Decisive
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt.
As daunting as it can be, with the possibility that there might be implications, decisiveness is key to effective leadership as it inspires confidence. However, one can ponder on a decision as well as engage with those around us to seek out advice or answers.
The comfort is that, if we realise that we’ve made the wrong decision, we’ll just need to make another one. If we’re confident in our abilities both personally and professionally, we are open to hearing solutions and ideas from those around us.
An Effective Leader is Committed
The level of commitment is relative to the level of success. But also, if we give up on something when the going gets tough, it builds the memory muscle saying: “It’s ok to give up when things aren’t going our way.” However, if we continuously go down that path, then that will always be our go-to response – and nothing much will ever be achieved.
An Effective Leader has Integrity
There are so many interpretations of what integrity is, yet the only thing I want to say about why it is so important to effective leadership is this: if your integrity is ever in question, you lose trust.
When you lose trust, you undermine commitment and accountability, and then the domino effect is a difficult one to reverse.
An Effective Leader is Optimistic
Whether optimistic or pessimistic, the challenge will remain the same, and to be optimistic is a mindset of effective leaders. Both optimism and pessimism are contagious and if we focus on the latter then it could not only affect those around us, but it could also lead to them wanting to distance themselves from us.
An Effective Leader is Vulnerable
Vulnerable comes from a Latin word that means, “to be wounded.”
In the past warriors wore a physical coat of armour to protect themselves. In the modern day, we have many emotional, intellectual, and psychological coats of armour to protect ourselves.
However, to act as effective leaders we have to learn new skills and develop ourselves, and at times we have to be vulnerable to the fact that we are not always going to be right, and we’ll make mistakes – but that it’s okay because we never get everything right 100% of the time.
The vulnerability part is being ok with that while still showing up, to continue learning, developing, and contributing to our own growth and those around us.
During a recent leadership effectiveness program for the Heads of Departments at Stadio Higher Education, one of the attendees was openly blown away by this concept of vulnerability. At the end of the day, he mentioned to me that, for his whole life, he feared being wrong because he always felt it made him look bad, stupid, and weak. This led him to live in a very safe and secure comfort zone that hindered his growth and experiences. But now that he has a new understanding of it, he’s motivated to change this.
So what next?
We are not perfect, we make mistakes, and people won’t always agree with us. There is no certainty. Effective leadership is understanding this and still having the courage to show up and carry on.
The skills that I have mentioned can be developed, yet challenges can arise as they are related to more than just “me” – it does involve dealing with other people. To develop them we need to be present, persistent, and patient.
If we take the time to develop these traits it will automatically contribute to our growth, but effective leadership is also about contributing to the growth of those around us. It’s also about contributing to the growth of the team around us so that they can act as effective leaders.
I remember reading a quote that said:
“Rather than having a sage on the stage, it’s better to have a guide at your side.”
And truer words have never been spoken when it comes to continuous motivation for continuous growth.
Whether personally or professionally, if we are growing and contributing, we are adding value not only to ourselves but also to those around us, and if we are contributing to those around us, we’re adding value. And when we add continuous value, we become indispensable both in our personal and professional lives.
And that is effective leadership.