7 skill sets every aspiring leader should develop

Whether you aspire to be an entrepreneur, director, or visionary, you will need to enhance a broad range of core leadership skill sets to help your organization become more innovative, productive, and profitable. In today’s ever-changing global workplace, it’s essential that you have the tools necessary to motivate and empower your team, quickly and effectively make decisions and solve problems, and identify and act on business opportunities before someone else does.

In addition to providing inspiration and leading by example, good leaders are also passionate about nurturing the strengths and talents of their employees. Just as you would expect your future team to commit to enhancing their professional skills and knowledge, you must ask the same of yourself. Leadership development is a process that you will need to practice throughout your career to ensure you remain adaptive, accountable, and at the top of your game professionally.

Take a minute to explore 7 skill sets essential to becoming an effective leader:

1. Enhance your emotional and cultural intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to attune to and manage your own emotions, as well as those of other people. There are four key components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness allows you to understand how your own strengths, weaknesses, and emotions affect yourself and your team
  • Self-management refers to your ability to effectively deal with your emotions, particularly in times of stress
  • Social awareness describes your capacity to lead with empathy and support your team’s perspectives
  • And finally, relationship management involves your competency as it pertains to influencing, coaching, and mentoring others

In this increasingly global economy, being able to collaborate effectively with people across a variety of cultural contexts is highly valued. Cultural intelligence is akin to emotional intelligence, but it focuses on the ability to pick up on the values, beliefs, and communication styles of people from different cultures. This enhanced awareness allows you to relate to your team with empathy, helping improve morale, and ensuring employees from diverse backgrounds can thrive in your organization.

When you lead with emotional and cultural intelligence, it doesn’t just benefit your team; it can also improve your own perceived value as an employee. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that managers who demonstrate empathy toward their direct reports are viewed as higher performers by their own bosses. 1

2. Expand your critical thinking skills and creativity

Strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills are undoubtedly essential if you want to become a successful leader. Critical thinking involves using focused, logical, and goal-directed strategies to solve problems, analyze potential outcomes, and make data-driven decisions. In a 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, senior executives across the globe rated “critical thinking and analysis” as the skill area most likely to grow in importance by 2025. 2

Critical thinking is also a powerful tool that can help you become more proactive in the face of challenges as a leader, allow you to mitigate risk of failure, and encourage you to respect and evaluate different perspectives. The decisions you make as a leader, and the strategies you initiate, can have a lasting impact on the success of your organization. Whether your outcomes are positive or negative will depend in part on your critical thinking skills.

It would be remiss not to mention the importance of balancing critical thinking with creativity, as they are complementary skills. The problems you encounter as a leader are not always going to have a clear, data-driven solution. That’s when you’ll need to employ creative techniques such as brainstorming, lateral thinking, and mind-mapping to help you produce non-conventional answers to traditional problems.

3. Aim to lead with authenticity

When you first meet a person, whether you’re conscious of it or not, you are likely making a judgment regarding their level of authenticity. If you feel that someone is being disingenuous or not showing their true personality, you aren’t going to be eager to trust or engage with them. Simply put, authenticity is the state of being true to who you are and sharing it with others. That’s why it’s important to lead with authenticity: Authentic leaders are self-aware, genuine, and act with integrity.

Part of the process of being more authentic involves becoming more self-actualized and conscious of your strengths, limitations, and emotions. It requires you to be vulnerable, willing to share your true self, and confident enough to admit when you are wrong. It means putting the goals of your organization ahead of your ego. A pitfall that some leaders fall into is mistaking vulnerability for weakness. On the contrary, it shows courage and enables connection. Becoming more authentic is an ongoing process that requires a commitment to development that can positively impact you personally and professionally.

4. Hone your communication skills

If you want to become a good leader, it’s essential that you build strong communication skills. In executive-level roles, there is an expectation you will be comfortable presenting in front of your team and your clients, crafting and communicating strategy and vision, and conversing with employees on a day-to-day basis. To collaborate with and lead your team, you need to be able to clearly articulate yourself, both in conversation and in writing. The more you can communicate your goals or asks with clarity, specificity, and transparency, the more likely your employees will be successful in delivering desired results.

Strong leaders understand they don’t always have all the answers and genuinely value input and feedback from their team members. As such, a major component of effective communication is ensuring you are an active listener. This entails dedicating your full attention to what the speaker is sharing, retaining the key points, and responding in a way that demonstrates interest and empathy. It’s also important to remember that your body language can communicate volumes, so try to make eye contact and avoid clenching your fists or crossing your arms during conversations.

5. Adopt an adaptive mindset

Adaptive thinking refers to your capacity to recognize and respond quickly and astutely to unexpected situations. From a leadership perspective, adopting an adaptive mindset allows you to adjust to changing work contexts, while identifying and seizing potential opportunities. As such, if you want to be an adaptive leader, you must allow yourself the freedom to explore issues from all angles, embrace your creativity, and accept that there is often more than one solution to a problem.

Curiosity is one of the key principles of adaptive leadership. When you are curious, it helps you to see new perspectives, encourage innovation, and facilitate problem-solving. Examples of things you can do to improve your curiosity and embrace an adaptable mindset include:

  • Ask questions, listen, and observe before acting
  • Consider how your own values and belief systems affect your judgment
  • Seek out different opinions, approaches, and solutions
  • Be willing to experiment, take risks, and continuously learn
  • Anticipate obstacles and have a contingency plan

6. Develop your conflict resolution skills

As a leader, it will be your responsibility to create a safe, positive, and productive work environment that fosters well-being for your employees. As such, you will need to be able to deal with stressful situations, manage difficult personalities, and help resolve disputes. If conflicts are not properly dealt with, then poor morale, increased employee turnover, and potential legal issues may result. However, if you deal with issues constructively and with empathy, you can build trust and strengthen relationships with your team.

The more in tune you are with your own emotional intelligence, the better you will be at conflict resolution. Consequently, it’s important that you remember to pause, breathe, and manage your own emotions before you respond to stressful situations. This requires intentionality on your part so you can remain calm, objective, and open to hearing the viewpoints of all involved parties. Below are some additional conflict resolution strategies that may be helpful both at work and at home:

  • Listen attentively
  • Acknowledge the problem
  • Focus on the behavior, not the person
  • Assess potential solutions
  • Keep communication open
  • Act decisively
  • Monitor and evaluate the outcome

7. Inspire others to grow and develop

Arguably, one of the most important responsibilities you will have as a leader is to motivate, develop, and empower your team to be successful. Not unlike a sports coach, your objective should be to encourage, support, and train your employees to attain their highest potential. People who feel empowered are more likely to be motivated, productive, and inspired to reach their own goals, which will likely benefit the company as well. When you openly recognize the value of your team members, it can boost morale, instill a sense of purpose, and make employees feel more invested in their work.

Creating a positive work environment wherein people are rewarded for reaching benchmarks—whether that’s with bonuses and promotions or Summer Fridays, or PTO—is a great way to incentivize employees to perform. Serving as a mentor, allowing for autonomy, and offering challenging work opportunities can also serve as inspiration. Different people feel motivated and appreciated by different rewards so, as a leader, it’s your job to identify what works for your team.

Employee training and development initiatives that help your direct reports enhance their skills and knowledge are also of the utmost importance. Building expertise can help improve confidence and motivate members of your team to strive for success. As a manager, it’s critical that you understand and validate the professional aspirations of your employees, and work with them to create a strategic development plan aligned not only with their goals but with those of your organization.

Which skill do you need to focus on developing most?

Now that you’ve explored different skill sets that can help you become a successful leader, it’s time to do some inner work and determine which areas you need to focus on the most. Once you’ve taken a hard look at potential areas for improvement, the next logical step is to enroll in the Certificate in Leadership and Communication at Penn LPS Online.

The Ivy League courses in this 5-credit program provide strategies to help enhance your communication skills, grow your analytical abilities, and leverage your strengths to identify and develop your unique leadership style. By the end of the certificate program, you’ll have created a five-year leadership plan customized to your professional competencies and goals.

The Certificate in Leadership and Communication prepares you to:

  • Increase your effectiveness as a leader
  • Persuade your audience through impactful communication
  • Customize your approach to professional development
  • Understand and apply relevant research in real-world situations
  • Learn how to make data-driven decisions to solve problems

Ready to take your leadership skills to the next level? Fill out your application at Penn LPS Online today and enroll in the Certificate in Leadership and Communication. You can also register for individual leadership and communication courses without committing to the entire certificate, or browse the Penn LPS Online course guide to see the full range of what’s currently available.

Works Cited
1 empathyintheworkplace.pdf (cclinnovation.org)
2 The Future of Jobs Report 2020 | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

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