You never master the art of leadership.
This is something that seems to be missing from the public conversation around how to be an effective leader — in the workplace, in the world at large, and even at home with family and friends. Leadership isn’t a destination, it is a process: a never-ending practice that takes years to develop, and at any moment can feel like a massive fail.
We all, at some point or another, forget how to be great leaders.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leadership over the course of my career, it’s that the soft skills are what matter most. It’s really not about being seen as the person in charge, or dressing a certain way, or reminding the people around you that you’re the final decision-maker.
It’s about learning how to communicate in a way that other people trust.
Here are five small ways you can start doing that right now.
1. Change up your feedback style so people know you mean what you say.
If you say, “Good job” to every person you work with, for every single thing they do, those words are going to lose their meaning.
Effective leadership isn’t about singing people’s praises all day long. In fact, studies have shown it’s the “negative” feedback (when communicated appropriately) that ends up being most helpful to people — not necessarily positive reinforcement. People want to learn, and grow, and feel challenged to be better today than they were yesterday, and so finding ways to facilitate that growth by giving constructive feedback is a crucial soft skill to learn.
The sandwich method here is popular (positive, constructive, positive). But so is just having regular, honest conversations that end with actionable steps forward.
Remember: it’s one thing to critique. It’s another to give constructive feedback with a path to improvement.
2. Look for leadership examples outside of work.
I run a PR firm called Stanton & Company.
I have also been taking dance lessons for a few years now.
Teaching dance and teaching someone how to do PR, on the surface, are two completely different things. But there is something to be said for observing different teaching styles and seeing how you can incorporate new approaches and motivation techniques.
That said, I personally think you become the best version of yourself as a leader when you are being authentic to who you are: when you speak from the heart, when you aren’t trying to be someone (or something) you’re not. When you aren’t putting on an act, but are instead showing up in a way that’s connected to your own vulnerability.
3. Whenever something goes wrong, take accountability first.
One thing I say to my team constantly is that whenever something goes wrong, ultimately the buck stops with me.
I’m the owner of the company, and so anything that happens is my responsibility.
In leadership positions, it can be easy to fall into a mindset of “being the victim.” If a series of things go wrong, you might start to feel like these obstacles are happening to you and are outside of your control. But giving this sort of mentality any amount of meaningful attention only makes the problem worse: you then start to see everything that happens this way.
Instead, it’s important for you to be the one who takes accountability first. No matter what happens, even if it’s clearly not your fault, it’s important that you take a moment to question the role you played. Maybe you’ve been more absent than normal. Maybe you were tending to other issues, which caused you to be distracted. Maybe you’ve been so busy that things fell through the cracks.
Whatever it is, great leaders lead by example — and own what they brought to the table before criticizing others.
4. Allow others to make their own mistakes.
Micromanaging people is rarely effective.
Reason being, people need to make their own mistakes in order to learn. Obviously, you want to put guardrails in place and make sure those mistakes happen in a controlled setting, but your goal is to get them to a place where they feel comfortable and confident operating on their own. That’s how you get someone to move from being just an employee to a real team member.
This takes a lot of patience on your part.
You have to take the time to teach, train, and guide the other person. You have to be there to pick them back up when something goes wrong. Most of all, you have to be OK with the fact that they will make mistakes along the way — while simultaneously remembering the short-term cost is worth their long-term knowledge and independence.
5. Actively self-reflect and ask for feedback often.
Leadership must shift and evolve with the environment and that means we need to be keeping an eye on things and making changes accordingly.
The best organizations are ones where the employees feel comfortable giving their managers and leaders direct feedback.
There has to be a loop: a way of knowing if people are hearing each other and if the communication style or approach is effective. And the only way to create this loop is to foster a nurturing environment where an employee telling their boss or an executive or company owner something they feel, or something that bothered them, or something they noticed, is received. And not just received but appreciated.
As a leader, the last thing you want is to work in a vacuum of your own thoughts. You have much more to gain by hearing other people’s perspectives than you have to lose.
While the leadership journey will have its ups and downs, if we embrace it, it’s a constant learning opportunity and a source of growth.