Top 10 Essential Leadership Skills to Master

There are many skills to develop to effectively lead a team, organization or company. But which leadership skills are essential to master? Let’s answer that today and these leadership skills are applicable for managers at every level, from line-manager up to CEO.

Realize that anyone can become an exceptional manager and leader of people. It is a matter of taking the right action and avoiding the wrong actions and developing the skills that drive excellence to pour out of people. So then you do not need to be a born leader – which is rare – you only must sharpen and hone the most effective skills and tools. Master these ten!

1. Leading by Example

You are the boss. As such, people look to you for standards. How you do what you do, will be how the majority of people who work for you will do what they do. In other words, their actions will reflect the same standards of values reflected in your actions. That, unfortunately, means they will follow your lead even if your actions lead in the wrong direction.

For example, if you want to be respected, show respect for all of those around you. Treat the people who work for you with great respect and they will in turn treat their customers, their work, you, other management, their peers, etc. with great respect. Treat them with low respect or some level of disrespect and they will use that same standard. You must pay close attention to your actions and inactions in the workplace and ensure they meet the highest standards if you want to raise and maintain a very high level of overall performance of your team, organization or company.

2. Listening and Responding

Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be respected and valued for his or her input. This is how we have influence over the outcomes of our hard work. In the course of listening to and responding to employees, they are assessing your words, your reactions, your body language and tone of voice. Your actions and demeanor, as the boss, listening and responding shows how much you respect and care for your people, that you have heard the person talking to you and that you value them and their input.

When you do not listen and do not respond adequately to their complaints, suggestions and questions, you suffer negative consequences and drive performance of the majority down. You also put undo burden on yourself, because as a manager, you are further away from the customer and understanding what is really going on in the organization or your team that is affecting performance.

So becoming skilled in listening and responding is absolutely critical to being an exceptional manager and leader of people. Learn how to effectively listen and respond. And while you do this, remember the first skill.

3. Communicating Openly

The people who work for you will want to know most of what is going on so they can use their own brains to make decisions, so they can have peace of mind, so they can trust you and finally so they can fully commit to the job, the team and the company. Practice and learn to provide whatever information, data, sentiments… that they want to know – hold nothing back. Be willing to reveal all cards that you hold. Be diligent about this and allow them more than enough time to ask questions and receive answers from you. Think of a time when you yourself may have felt ambushed with a lack of information. Do not do the same to your people.

4. Protecting the Messenger at All Costs

When someone is trying to present a possible issue, do not shoot them down or brush them off. In other words, have a Don’t Shoot the Messenger mentality, because nobody likes to get shot! Learn to recognize when a person dares to stand up to be heard and when someone, even you, shoots them down with words or body language.

As the boss, you are striving for transparency, open communications, trust, etc. and if people think they will be intimidated, contradicted, “shot” when they stand up, they will distrust you (and maybe all of management). Under these conditions, most people will hide important information until it is too late and things break.

Sometimes “shooting the messenger” is so subtle that bosses/managers do not think or know this is what they are doing. Learn to control yourself and go back to the first 3 skills: leading by example, listening and responding, and communicating openly. You are the boss. Relax and welcome any and all input – questions, suggestions, concerns, etc.

5. Leading Without Orders

You want your people to be self-directed, capable of deciding what to do, when to do it, and how to do it in order to carry out the goals of your team, organization, or company. Giving orders, however, tends to destroy self-direction. Go too far and you risk treating the majority like robots incapable of deciding what to do. Don’t risk shutting down brainpower, so practice not giving orders.

You never want to hear, “Yes, whatever you want.” Note, that the words are generally phrased more diplomatically, “Great, that’s what we’ll do” or “Yes. Yes. Yes.” This indicates a mind has shut down and the person or people are simply trying to please you and do whatever you want them to do.

The people who work for you were hired to do their job, not have it done for them. Practice getting them to use their brain. Direct them away from yes-men responses and ensure that all other managers (your direct reports) are doing the same.

Developing this skill does take work because so many of us are accustomed to giving orders, delegating and making decisions that the people who work for us are fully capable of doing on their own. Do not falter. Do not fear mistakes. Unless the consequence of failure would be significant, let them fail because making mistakes is the best way to learn. You are the one running the overall picture at a higher level in the organization. Be that person, not the micro-manager, but the macro-manager.

6. Admitting Mistakes

If you don’t admit to your mistakes as the boss and apologize for them, please tell me why anyone else should or why any group around you should? And if you think you can hide your mistakes, you are absolutely wrong. People are smart. They pick up your errors quickly.

The more powerful leadership tactic is to capitalize on your errors, even the very small ones. Fess up to your errors quickly and apologize. Make a point of mentioning your mistakes in a meeting and set the example as often as possible. Realize that frequent repetition of this standard is the only way to get your team members to admit to their own errors. This is the way improvements are made and the way excellence is reached. We all learn much more from our errors, than from our successes.

7. Providing Superior Support

Knowing what your employees need to do a better job and to sustain excellence is a skill and your primary job is to do exactly that, in fact. You are the boss. You control things, many things that are essential to getting work done well such as training, tools, coaching, and discipline, along with resources – money, people or time. You also control the flow of information from above and even around your team. Additionally, as the boss, you are also responsible for intangible support such as morale, trust, confidence and competence.

It is clear that without quality support, no team will ever be truly successful, truly expert at what they do. Remember that first skill – you are the example. They are watching and following you. What you want to do is to learn what superior support is and practice providing superior support until the incidence of issues and problems approaches zero. It is at this point when you feel like a very-well-oiled team.

8. Apologizing for Support Deficiencies

This is similar to admission of error, and just as powerful. You must apologize for your support deficiencies because these are your errors. When you do this, people realize you are diligent and care about doing a good job since your job is to provide support. Everyone who works for you knows that is your job. And even if the deficiency was from prior management, apologize for it. These deficiencies must be rectified in order to move on to higher performance, something everyone absolutely desires. Everyone loves to say they work in a group of top performers. They will boast about it and the company. Deliver!

9. Providing High Quality Responses

Only the highest quality responses to complaints, suggestions and questions are to be given, because this is the only way to demonstrate great respect for your people. Nobody likes responses that are not thoughtful, not researched and properly vetted or that miss the mark. Nobody likes it because there is little chance to then go back to such a boss for a more accurate and helpful response. So don’t be a hip-shooter, take the time to respond. Hold to high standards, because the way you treat them is the way they will treat their work, colleagues and customers. Also, when you provide high quality responses, this shows everyone that you, as their boss, realize you don’t know everything and need their input. This takes the pressure off you.

10. Being the Brake Not the Accelerator

Finally, every boss must become skilled at ensuring that things meet the highest standards of all values. Self-directed people are eager to turn their thoughts into actions. Your excellent leadership from mastery of the above 9 skills will garner enthusiasm and ownership. People will try to go running off to get great things done. So now you must be the brake and not another accelerator, because your job is to be the protector of high value standards. Before they run off, ask questions and make them reveal how it is “we” will be meeting high standards and if not how to make adjustments by providing more resources or whatever is necessary. This is the way to ensure success is a given. This is your job. This is where your experience comes in, where your higher position of responsibility comes in and where you are most needed. Otherwise, why have management?


These Top 10 Leadership Skills are covered in detail in Ben’s book, find out more about it right here. And each will be regularly covered and discussed in our show Leadership Science TV and in related articles.

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Where next? Your Most Important Leadership Skill

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Master Ben’s ten essential leadership skills to drive performance higher across your entire team or organization. These are the ones Ben used to turn around various at risk groups, with gains in productivity measured at 300%.
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