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5 ways you can become a better leader


Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Sunnie Giles describes five major competencies exhibited by strong leaders that are "difficult to master" but can provide "enormous opportunities for improving everyone's performance."

Giles is a professionally certified executive coach, leadership development consultant, and organizational scientist. She is also president of Quantum Leadership Group

What makes an effective leader?

In 2016, Giles surveyed 195 leaders from more than 30 global organizations in 15 different countries about their most important leadership competencies. The top 15 competencies were then grouped into five major themes that leaders, as well as leadership development programs, can prioritize to improve their skills.

According to Giles, many of these themes are not surprising, but they're "difficult to master, in part because improving them requires acting against our nature." To be a more effective leader, you should:

1. Demonstrate a strong sense of ethics and safety

In the survey, the two most highly rated leadership attributes were "high ethical and moral standards" and "communicating clear expectations." Together, these attributes focus on creating a safe and trusting environment for workers.

Leaders with high ethical standards are committed to fairness, and those who clearly communicate their expectations will help ensure that everyone has the same understanding of a situation. "In a safe environment employees can relax, invoking the brain's higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition," Giles writes.

2. Provide opportunities for employees to self-organize

Although it's important for leaders to provide clear directions with assignments, they should also allow employees to organize their own time and work. Several studies have also shown that "empowered teams are more productive and proactive, provide better customer service, and show higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their team and organization," Giles writes.

According to Giles, many leaders are reluctant to allow employees to self-organize because they don't want others to make mistakes or face negative consequences from others' decisions. To overcome this fear, she recommends separating the current situation from the past, sharing your fears instead of trying to keep control, and remembering that giving up power can be an effective way to build influence.

3. Encourage feelings of connection and belonging

Leaders who "communicate often and openly" and "create a feeling of succeeding and failing together as a pack" create strong feelings of connection on their team, Giles writes.

These feelings of connection can then positively impact workers, with some research suggesting that they can affect both productivity and emotional well-being. To promote belonging among employees, Giles recommends these simple tips:

  • Smile at people, call them by name, and remember their interests
  • Pay attention to others when speaking to them
  • Model behavior to show team members that they should support each other

4. Be open to new ideas and foster organizational learning

Three of the top attributes identified by surveyed leaders were "flexibility to change opinions," "being open to new ideas and approaches," and "provides safety for trial and error." These attributes can help leaders encourage learning instead of stifling it.

"To encourage learning among employees, leaders must first ensure that they are open to learning (and changing course) themselves," Giles writes. To do this, Giles recommends approaching problem-solving discussions without a specific agenda and letting people know that all ideas will be considered.

Leaders should also develop a culture that supports risk-taking and allows for small failures that help employees learn from each other's mistakes.

5. Be committed to employees' growth

Two important attributes identified by leaders were "being committed to my ongoing training" and "helping me grow into a next-generation leader."

When leaders are committed to their employees' growth, employees are more likely to reciprocate and go the extra mile with their work. "If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, support their training and promotion, and go to bat to sponsor their important projects," Giles writes.

Overall, the " five areas [may] present significant challenges to leaders," but they also provide "enormous opportunities for improving everyone's performance by focusing on our own," Giles writes. (Giles, Harvard Business Review, 3/15/16)


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