The 11 essentials of leading a team — and yourself

Heading an organization can be an extremely rewarding experience, but the job is not without challenges. Leaders are responsible for ensuring their organizations are competitive, financially successful and fulfill their missions, all while making work a great experience for employees. During turbulent times, the pressure surrounding these responsibilities intensifies, forcing bosses to put their leadership skills to the test.

The following traits, tips and strategies can serve as a guide for leaders to enhance their leadership skills.  

Important leadership traits and characteristics

1. Self-awareness. Self-awareness is defined as "understanding who we are and how we are similar to or different from others," according to the Harvard Business Review. Central to self-awareness is the understanding of how consistent — or inconsistent — our self-view is compared to how others see us. According to an HBR study, when individuals had high self-awareness, their teams were more likely to make better quality decisions, engage more in coordination and show successful conflict management.

2. Charisma. Truly remarkable leaders are made over time through learning how to nurture, motivate and inspire employees. They demonstrate more than just an aptitude for delegation and giving occasional praise — they are uniquely charismatic. Charismatic leaders are good listeners and give genuine praise often. While they're open to discuss their own failings, they avoid discussing the failures of others, unless it is to fulfill a purely constructive purpose. 

3. Communication. Communication is an important determinant of an executive's success — just as much as more business-specific skills, according to the Harvard Business Review. The vast majority of polled employees — 91 percent — say communication issues can lower an executive's standing. Leaders can immediately improve their communication skills by focusing on the following strategies, according to HBR:

  • Give specific praise.
  • Give both personal and public thank yous.
  • Ask employees for their opinions and ideas.
  • Be transparent, especially during periods of change.
  • Give feedback on an ongoing basis, not once a year.
  • Admit your mistakes and share what you've learned from them.
  • Address your employees by name.

4. Physical fitness. Strong leadership is critical to the success of any organization, which means leaders need to do a good job of taking care of themselves. Though exercise is usually not a busy executive's top priority, it can actually refine leadership skills. According to Michael Hyatt, author of Your Virtual Mentor, exercise refines competitiveness, increases self-discipline and increases the capacity for self-sacrifice. It can also help increase energy levels and prepare you to handle the demands of a busy professional life. Even for people who claim they don't have enough time to exercise regularly, research shows daily exercise enhances work-life balance and lowers stress and anxiety levels.

Building a team

5. Enhance engagement. According to a poll from Gallup, managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. Only 30 percent of U.S. workers are engaged at work. Of the other 70 percent, 52 percent are not engaged and 18 percent are actively disengaged. Disengagement among employees can be highly detrimental to a company — it can cause employees to be emotionally detached from their work, less productive and more likely to steal from their companies.

To increase employee engagement levels, leaders can help their employees set clear goals and show them how their work impacts the organization. Leaders should inspire employees by personifying the organization's vision, and be as transparent as possible, especially during challenging times or periods of change.   

6. Refine culture. Organizational culture is one of the first and most important factors job-seekers consider during the recruitment process. Josh Bersin, a principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte and Forbes contributor, defines culture as the set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems and rituals that make up an organization. Companies can identify ways to improve their culture by asking the following questions:

  • Do we have the right leaders? Culture is driven by the way leaders behave and display their values. According to data from Glassdoor, the factor most correlated with an individual's recommendation of their company as a place to work was "quality and trust in leadership."
  • Are we hiring the right candidates? When hiring new employees, keep in mind that even if a candidate possesses the right skills and experience, he or she may not be successful at a company if he or she won't be compatible with its culture.
  • Are our values too complex? According to Mr. Bersin, if you can't write down your organization's values in just a few words, they're probably too complex.

7. Reduce competition. Although we often see competition as a source of motivation, it easily distorts the social relations that increase collaboration, productivity and profitability. Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, former CEO of five companies and author, said in a TED Talk that a culture of helpfulness routinely outperforms individual intelligence. Instead of encouraging competition between employees, leaders should create environments that build social capital — a sense of reliance and interdependency that increases trust. To do this, leaders should model a team mindset, reward teamwork more than individual performance and frame challenges as something in need of diverse perspectives and skills.

Setting the organization on the track to success

8. Running efficient meetings. Meetings are essential to organizations for sharing information, collaborating and building relationships. However, a poorly run meeting can be a waste of time. To ensure meetings are both time-efficient and productive, consider the following tips from the Harvard Business Review.

  • Set an agenda prior to the meeting and clearly communicate goals.
  • Avoid large meetings to increase each member's participation. HBR recommends having roughly seven attendees present.
  • Create a "no devices allowed" rule. Using a cell phone or tablet while someone else is speaking is disrespectful and dilutes your attention.

9. Performance management. Employees' performance reviews have a significant effect on their future performance. According to a study from HBR, employees working under positive-rating managers feel supported and optimistic about future improvement, while employees working under negative-rating managers feel confused and discouraged and that it is impossible to succeed. Many companies have already done away with their performance rating systems, opting instead for more frequent conversations regarding employee performance and emphasizing development and growth.

10. Leading through change. Shepherding the organization through periods of change is a difficult task in itself, and in today's world, leaders must do so in VUCA — a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world where they not only confront periods of uncertainty, but are constantly immersed in it, Liz Wiseman, president of the Wiseman group, wrote in Fortune. The most critical skill when leading a team through change is communication, for a lack of communication leads to anxiety and unrest among employees.

Leaders can improve communication by identifying the unknowns, defining questions and engaging their teams through the change process. They must stick to the plan and not act impulsively, but also be open-minded to bold ideas. Finally, they must execute. While bold leadership means taking risks, leaders who cannot follow through on their ideas don't reflect the best image among employees.

11. Becoming a more strategic leader. Unlike the numerous operational duties leaders perform on a daily basis, strategic actions involve a different mindset, new relationships and organizational skills. According to Hermina Ibarra, the Cora chair professor of leadership and learning at Insead, executives who want to become more strategic leaders can effectively develop a strong strategic awareness and skills through certain practices.

  • Use outside relationships inside your organization. While all leaders have an internal network that supports their daily operations, executives should also leverage a solid and well-placed network of contacts outside of their organization, according to Ms. Ibarra. These external contacts can offer insight about big picture to help leader make informed, strategic decisions internally. These external connections may even lead new business opportunities or partnerships.
  • Analyze what "strategic" initiatives are actually strategic. Often, various items on executives' agendas are strategic only in name and really do not require as much attention as others. According to Ms. Ibarra, ranking each strategic initiative they are asked to support in order of importance — or another measure — will allow leaders to budget the amount of time spent and manpower involved working on each.
  • Work as a team. Strategic thinking is enhanced when members of the C-suite have established good working relationships and members collaborate with one another. Even though each chief has his or her own domain, they are actually interdependent and should aim to work as a coherent unit. Additionally, asking for another C-suiter's insight can prevent functional fixedness and improve strategic thinking, just as consulting someone outside of the organization can.

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