10 leadership skills all leaders need

We’re only into the third year of the 2020s and it already feels like we’ve lived through a century worth of events. And when you’re leading an organisation through the tumult of the 21st century, it can feel like you’re trying to steer a ship without any navigational equipment, tiller or wheel.

The most effective leaders have high levels of self-awareness and put in place support mechanisms to help them – this might be a coach, or a mentor, or being part of a cohort of other leaders on a programme or in an action learning set, or a combination of these. A good starting point is to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can then leverage the former and work on the latter.

Here are 10 skills that I think leaders need to navigate this turbulent century:

  1. The ability to navigate complexity

Appreciating complexity reminds us that no behaviour is always effective and that all cures have unintended consequences. Adam Grant, Think Again

Some industries and sectors are incredibly complex, with all sorts of rules, regulations, policies and bureaucracy. Knowing how to navigate these in order to move at a fast enough speed, while keeping people and the company safe, is crucial. And regularly questioning whether rules and regulations are relevant, need to be changed or removed, is crucial.

For example, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Management, tracked more than a thousand restaurant inspections in California. The researchers observed more than 80,000 instances of rule compliance and noncompliance, including repeated violations, over the course of three years. The study concludes that the greater the complexity in business regulation the more likely it was that businesses will violate those rules, with violations leading to some sort of penalty.

Top tip: Regularly ask whether certain rules or regulations are needed and if so, do they need reviewing or simplifying.

2. The ability to handle ambiguity

Ultimately, leadership is the ability to thrive in the ambiguity of paradoxes and opposites. Dheeraj Pandey, Founder, CEO and Chairman of Nutanix.

It was the former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, who said “We know what we know, we know what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t know.” It’s this latter part that can confound many leaders, particularly because there is often the self-expectation as well as expectation from others that you know everything about everything.

Again, in some sectors and industries, ambiguity is the norm. Your job, as the leader, is to shine a light through the fog in order to get some kind of clarity. One way to do this is to ask questions of the right people. Indeed, a study led by Oriel Feldman-Hall suggests that people who are tolerant of ambiguity, where there is uncertainty and the outcome is unknown, are more likely to cooperate with and trust other people.

Top tip: If you’re facing an ambiguous situation ask yourself if there are others who might have been in the same situation, perhaps leaders in other organisations, and learn from them. Also ask if the right people are involved in demystifying the situation and developing the plan ahead.

3. The ability to influence and persuade

If we want to say something in a way that others will hear, we have to think about THEM, about THEIR values and THEIR frames of reference – not just about ourselves. Margaret Heffernen, Wilful Blindness

A 50-year old study by Neil Rackham and John Carlisle examined what expert negotiators do differently. The study found that the best negotiators did the following five things:

  1. They spent more than a third of their planning time in finding common ground with the other party.
  2. They presented just a few carefully selected reasons to support their case, using only their strongest, most powerful arguments.
  3. They rarely went on the offense or defence. Instead, they demonstrated genuine curiosity, asking questions such as, “So you don’t see any value in this proposal at all?”
  4. They asked more questions than less effective negotiators. In fact, every fifth comment tended to end with a question.
  5. They were more likely to comment on their feelings about the process, as well as test their understanding of the other individual’s or group’s feelings.

Top tip: Use the Rackham and Carlisle study as a checklist for when you have to enter into a negotiation or you need to influence an individual or group.

4. The ability to motivate self and others

…autonomy is one of the fundamental motivating forces in life. Give someone space and responsibility, and they feel competent and respected; take it away and their enthusiasm collapses. Caroline Webb, How to have a good day

A useful psychological theory for leaders to know is Self Determination Theory, by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. This suggests we have three A,B,C core needs at work:

  1. The need for AUTONOMY where we can control how we go about our work, and that this work is consistent with our values and professional integrity.
  2. The need for BELONGING and feeling like a valued member of the team and organisation.
  3. The need for COMPETENCE and feeling like we’re growing and developing our skills in response to the challenges we face wt work.

Top tip: Use the self-determination A,B,C model when motivating your team members. To what extent do they feel they have sufficient autonomy? How have you created a team where people feel like they belong and matter? What development activities are in place to help people be and do their best?

5. Open-mindedness and curiosity

Curiosity is an act of vulnerability and courage. Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

According to a meta-analysis (study of many studies) of 50 years of research on the key predictors of leadership effectiveness, curiosity was among the characteristics said to explain around a 40% variance in a leader’s performance.

Top tip: Take a leaf out of the famous physicist Richard Feynman’s book and keep a ‘Things I don’t know’ notebook and then seek to learn more about and understand these things. And as part of this knowledge gathering, actively seek out people who are different from you to learn from.

6. Respect for difference and inclusive

You don’t have to realise you’re being discriminated against to in fact be discriminated against. Caroline Criado-Perez, Invisible Women

We know that research suggests more diverse and inclusive organisations perform better. Professor Ivuoma Ngozi Onyeador and Professor Lauren Rivera share evidence-based tips for leaders wanting to improve diversity, equality and inclusion in their organisations:

  • Review your recruitment and selection practices – for example, are you excluding certain groups because of how job descriptions or adverts are written?
  • Don’t just rely on diversity training – complement this with policies and programmes, such as mentoring.

Top tip: Make a visible declaration, for example a document you sign, which sets out your commitment to inclusion. Be honest and ask yourself what biases you have and then get help to challenge and work on these. For example, why not engage in reverse mentoring, where someone younger than you and with a different background, mentors you?

7. The ability to build and maintain quality relationships

…regular, consistent, normalized help-giving is a condition that supports high-quality ties and connections between people. Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, Awakening compassion at work

Relationships matter when it comes to business. Whether you’re the founder of a small company, or you’re the chief executive of a global FTSE100 business. In fact, a study by Prasad Balkundi and Martin Kilduff suggests that leaders with breadth and depth of connections both inside and outside of their company are more effective.

The importance of relationships and networks was also one of the main findings in my own research into what enables female founders to be successful. Their network and the time and effort they put into growing, connecting with and helping the people in their network makes a huge difference to the success of a startup in those vulnerable early years.

Top tip: Meet up, in person or virtually, with one person in your wider network for 30 minutes once a week. Offer to help them in some way. Introduce members of your network to each other.

8. The ability to problem solve

Where art, technology, or science alone cannot solve problems, the combination of the three is perhaps the most powerful of all. Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind

This isn’t about falling into the trap of the heroic leader, where you solve everything yourself.This is also about how you leverage the skills, knowledge and experience of others, including outside of your organisation and industry. That being said, when problem solving, a Boston University study suggests that while a team approach to problem solving can be helpful, this is amplified when we step away and do our own, individual thinking. The study found that interrupting problem-solving teamwork with breaks for individual thinking, seemed to increase the likelihood of finding the best answer, at least for especially complex problems.

Top tip: Ensure you and your team don’t fall into group think when problem solving by using the devil’s advocate approach. Each team meeting a member of the team takes on the role of devil’s advocate which gives them explicit permission to ask the difficult questions, without fear of backlash. Questions include, ‘who does this solution harm?’ and ‘who have we deliberately not asked because we simply want to get this wrapped up?’

9. Tenacity and perseverance

Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare. Angela Duckworth, Grit

In a longitudinal study of 1,100 cadets at West Point, the US military academy, researchers found that characteristics such as grit seemed to have an influence on a person’s level of success. Grit is defined as having passion AND perseverance toward long-term goals. For many leaders these will be a mix of long-term personal goals and long-term company goals.

Top tip: Use the WOOP framework as part of your goal-setting. This gets you to think about the potential obstacles and how you might overcome them. By thinking ahead it means you’ll be less likely to give up when an obstacle gets in the way.

10. Resilience – the ability to bounce back from failure or overcome problems

This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, Flow

A helpful article from Science for Work examines the evidence around resilience training, and in particular what approaches work best in helping us build and protect our resilience. First, is to recognise the effects of resilience training diminish over time, particularly if you’re not applying what you learned – the whole, “use it or lose it” adage. Second, one of the most effective ways to grow your resilience is through coaching, followed by some form of training.

Top tip: If resilience is something you want to work on, find a coach or mentor to work with you.

Want to work with me? Here are the ways you can get in contact with me to book a complementary meeting so we can find out if we’re right for each other.

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