How to be a leader in the workplace

Interest in the study of leadership has exploded in recent decades within academia and beyond. Dr. Liz Matthew, Associate Director of Curriculum for Penn LPS Online, says the spike in interest correlates to leadership becoming more accessible to more people. Liz holds an EdD in Educational Leadership from St. Joseph’s University. Before joining Penn, she was an Assistant Professor of Practice in Temple University’s Business Communication Program.

“There was a time when emerging as a leader had mostly to do with heredity,” Liz explains, noting that economic and technological shifts have made that less true. “In an information economy, your leadership skills are more relevant to whether you can access leadership and whether you can perform once you do.” Liz adds that the internet has also made leadership more accessible—and more competitive. “Now that everyone has a platform to say whatever they like, having the endorsement of other leaders behind your name matters a great deal,” she says.

Becoming an effective leader at work takes more than a checklist of knowledge and skills. You must also become a keen observer of yourself and others as well as the context that you are in. Learning to look at what is needed where you work can help you emerge and be recognized as somebody who advances the needs of your organization.

We exercise leadership throughout our lives

Whether you realize it or not, you are already a leader in many aspects of your life. “Whenever you attempt to influence anyone to behave in accordance with your preferences, you're being a leader,” says Liz. “You're a leader as a parent, as a little league coach, as a volunteer at the community center. You're a leader in all those contexts if you're trying to get anything done and you require other people to do it. It’s actually hard to imagine a situation where you don't have to lead in some way,” she notes.

The fact that leadership is such an integral part of our lives means that we already know more about the subject than we realize, for example, how to respond to adversity, how to influence others, and how to relay good or bad news. This intuitive knowledge is highly relevant to becoming an effective leader at work and in other areas of your life. “Studying leadership helps people codify what they already know deep down, so that they can use that knowledge more consistently and confidently,” Liz says.

Leadership development and self-knowledge

Liz, who teaches Penn LPS Online courses in leadership and communication, says becoming a leader requires self-knowledge, which makes it an apt fit for a liberal arts curriculum. “There’s an old saying that a liberal arts education is about more than learning how to make a living; it’s also learning how to live. It’s the pursuit of the examined life,” Liz notes. “We look at various disciplines and think about what we can learn from different works of literature and works of social science. We do focus on developing practical skills but leadership starts with thoughtful analysis of yourself and the environment in which you find yourself.”

One item for contemplation is where individuals want to be on the leadership-followership continuum. “Our culture tends to equate leadership positions with personal success, but it is important for people to think about what level and form of leadership they actually want in their career,” Liz says. “Some people may really appreciate being out front, and some people may appreciate not being out front all of the time and that is perfectly fine.” Similarly, Liz says, “in my courses we talk about the importance of not falling into leadership that you don't want—and not letting the leadership opportunities that you do want pass you by.”

Introspection also allows students to take stock of their unique strengths and how to leverage them. Liz encourages students to think about the feedback they have received from supervisors and people who have worked for them over time. “I ask them, what are the things that multiple people have said they found valuable about your way of working?” Liz says. She notes that there is also research on “signature strengths” that helps individuals understand their leadership traits and skills profiles, and begin to leverage them more fully. “It's about focusing more on your strengths and leveraging them than focusing on your weaknesses,” Liz says.

Essential leadership traits

Different strengths can make different leaders successful depending on the circumstances. In fact, one of the biggest myths about leadership may be that all leaders share the same core qualities. For example, some may think that hyperintelligence and ambition are essential for leadership. “You do need to have a baseline of intelligence and ambition, sure, but there’s also humility and empathy that’s required. There's also the good fortune that is being in the right place at the right time,” Liz says.

Among the leadership qualities that the latest scientific studies have found to be keys to success are empathy and adaptability. “Great leaders are able to understand where people are coming from, or at least make people believe they understand where they're coming from. Additionally, great leaders need to be able to change the way they lead depending on the situation,” Liz says.

Empathy and adaptability work hand in hand. Empathy allows leaders to recognize what drives people and what they need. The skill of adaptability enables leaders to apply the type of leadership that's required in a given situation. “You have to change how you express yourself and how you lead based on the context in which you're being asked to lead. That can be difficult for a lot of people,” says Liz.

Knowing your audience

“I think being able to communicate to people in a way that they understand and value is, in some ways, the single biggest strength of a leader,” Liz says. At Penn LPS Online, the importance of communication is evident in the name of the leadership program in which Liz teaches: students earn an online certificate or degree concentration in Leadership and Communication. The curricula for both the program’s Certificate and its Concentration were co-developed by leading scholars together with present and former top leaders from the worlds of business, nonprofits, and government.

One theme in the coursework is that good communication has to be audience-centered. For example, a good cover letter is one that is written to a specific hiring manager, at a specific company, and takes their priorities and preferences into account, Liz says. Audience-centered writing has to be easy for an audience to read and understand, so grammar and style are important as well. Penn LPS Online students studying Leadership and Communication develop strategies and skills to understand their audiences and then persuade them through impactful verbal, visual, and written communication.

“At the end of the day, leadership is all about empathy—being able to put yourself in the shoes of your audience,” Liz says. “We tend to focus on the action part of leadership, but leadership is really a set of habits for listening and looking and thinking and evaluating, and then acting.”

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Leadership and Communication is open for enrollment. Students can enroll in individual Leadership and Communication courses without committing to the entire certificate. For more information, please visit our certificate page.

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