What makes some people excel as leaders often feels shrouded in mystery. You can read about leadership, research it, and talk about it, yet the interest in leadership alone will not necessarily teach you how to be a good leader.
You will have more information than the average person, but learning effective leadership is lifelong work. It requires experience – and lots of it. Most importantly, it requires observation and a commitment to action.
If you are searching for how to up your own leadership game, read on for six characteristics that good leaders share:
1. Devoted to the Success of Those Around Them
Good leaders are not self-interested. Sure, they want to succeed, but they also want others to succeed.
Good leaders see investing in others as equally important as investing in themselves. They understand that their success is closely tied to the people around them, and they work to ensure that their peers, employees, friends, and family have paths for growth and development.
While the leaders may be the people in the spotlight, they are quick to point to the people around them who helped them (the leaders) enter that spotlight. Their willingness to lift others inspires their colleagues’ and friends’ devotion and loyalty.
2. Not Overly Dependent on Others’ Approval
It is important for managers to express their support for their teams. In order to do this well and learn how to be a good leader, you must not rely on the approval of others. I explained in an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, that:
“While a desire to be loved is natural, managers who prioritize approval from subordinates will become ineffective supervisors who may do employees harm. For example, a manager driven by a need for approval may shy away from delivering constructive feedback that could help an employee improve. A manager fearful of upsetting someone may tolerate behavior that degrades the work environment and culture.”
In yet another example, a manager who is dependent on the approval of others may not make decisions that could be deemed unpopular in the short run but necessary in the long run.
Think of the coaches who integrated their sport teams. Their decision to do so may have seemed odd, and even wrong, in the moment, but time has proven that those leaders were on the right side of history.
3. Capacity to Share the Spotlight
Attention is nice, but it is not the prime motivator for good leaders. They understand that effective leadership is about simply doing a good job.
For this reason, good leaders are willing to share the spotlight as part of their leadership strategy. They aren’t threatened by a lack of attention, and they do not need credit for every accomplishment. They are too focused on their goal and too focused on the urgency of their work.
4. Desire to Learn
In the same way that human beings are constantly evolving, so too are leaders. As long as you are living, you have the potential to learn.
I have the experience of thinking I was doing everything right as a manager, only to receive conflicting feedback from my team. Perhaps my approach was not working for my team, and I had to be willing to hear their feedback to improve.
Good leaders understand that their secret sauce for great leadership is their willingness to keep receiving information and keep learning. They aren’t intimidated by what they do not know. As long as they maintain a willingness to keep growing, they believe they can overcome any obstacle they face, which is key as you learn how to be a good leader.
As both masters and students, good leaders read, listen, and study to grow. They consume content for information, not just entertainment purposes. They aren’t impressed with their knowledge; they are impressed with the learning journey.
If you, too, want to learn to love learning again, check out Lifehack’s Fast-Track Class: Spark Your Learning Genius.
5. View Vulnerability as a Superpower
It means “replacing ‘professional distance and cool,’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” said Emma Sappala in “What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable” for the Harvard Business Journal. She went on to note the importance of human connection, which she asserts is often missing at work:
“As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to a spouse or close friend behind closed doors at night but we would never show it elsewhere during the day, let alone at work.”
This rings so true for me as a female leader. I was raised believing that any show of emotion in the workplace could be used against me. I was raised believing that it was best for female leaders to be stoic and to “never let ‘em see you sweat.” This may have prevented me from connecting with employees and colleagues on a deeper, more personal level.
6. Understand Themselves
I am a huge fan of life coach and spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant. In addition to her hit show on the OWN network, Vanzant has authored dozens of books. In her books and teachings, she underscores the importance of knowing ourselves fully. She argues that we must know what makes us tick, what makes us happy, and what makes us angry, especially if we want to learn how to be a good leader.
Self-awareness enables us to put ourselves in situations where we can thrive, and it also enables us to have compassion when we fall short of the goals and expectations we have for ourselves. Relatedly, understanding ourselves will allow us to know our strength. When we know our strengths, we will be able to put people around us who compliment our strengths and fill the gaps in our leadership.
Good leaders develop their emotional intelligence to become the kind of leader their team members can look up to and follow. They embrace successes and failures, which helps them build trust with both themselves and those around them. They cultivate a positive attitude because they know it makes for a more productive workforce.
Learning how to be a good leader, first and foremost, is an inside job. You must focus on growing as a person, regardless of the leadership title that you hold. You cannot take others where you yourself have not been. So focusing on yourself, regardless of your time or where you are in your career, will have long term benefits for you and the people around you.
Furthermore, if you want to learn how to be a great leader, you should start by setting the intention to do so. What you focus on grows, so if you focus on becoming a better leader, you will research and invest in things that help you to fulfill this intention. You will also view the good and bad leadership experiences as stepping stones that hone your character and help you improve.
After you set the intention, get really clear on what a good leader looks like to you. Each of us has a different understanding of leadership. Is a successful leader someone who takes risks? Is a good leader, in your estimation, someone who develops other leaders?
Once you define what it means to be a good leader, look for people who exemplify your vision. Watch and engage with them if you can.
Finally, understand that becoming a good leader doesn’t happen overnight. You must continually work at improving, investing in yourself, and reflecting on what makes a good leader. In this way, every experience is an opportunity to grow and a chance to ask: “What is this experience trying to teach me?” or “What action is necessary based on this situation?”
If you are committed to questioning, evaluating, and acting, you are that much closer to becoming a better leader.