“To do great things is difficult; but to command great things is more difficult." It's a line written by Friedrich Nietzsche, and it sums up aptly some of the challenges of how to be a leader. Steve Gravenkemper, Ph.D., believes that everyone can develop leadership skills. Gravenkemper, who is a consulting psychologist based in Columbus, Ohio, working with organizations in areas such as leadership development, succession planning, executive coaching and more, says that if you boil it down, a leader plays two roles. “One is to set direction. And the other is to get people to follow you," he says. “If people trust you, if people respect you, then they're going to be more likely to follow you."
Having consulted with hundreds of leaders over more than two decades, Gravenkemper has defined six areas that distinguish effective leaders. He shared the following examples of how to be a leader at work.
1. Effective leaders embrace continuous learning.
A sense of openness and curiosity are two characteristics that good leaders possess, says Gravenkemper. “The world's changing so quickly that people have to be open to new information, and also be open to the opinions and ideas of others," he says. He suggests that leaders surround themselves with people who think differently than they do, and also hire people who represent a diversity of thought. “The risk is that without that diversity of thought, leaders can fall prey to group-think—especially if they create their inner circle with people who think just like them. And that's going to put them at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace," says Gravenkemper.
2. Effective leaders develop emotional intelligence.
Intelligence in business leadership is important, but so is the way a person manages emotions. “How bright you are may be the price of admission and take you to a certain level, but really, if you're going to move up in organizations or increase your influence or your impact, there's this idea that you have to develop emotional intelligence," he says. Gravenkemper points to the book Emotional Intelligence by author Daniel Goleman as a great place to start learning the importance of leadership traits such as self awareness, self regulation, social awareness and relationship management. “It's not what you say but how you say it," says Gravenkemper. “It's not just the intent of your communication as a leader, it's the impact. It's how people receive it."
3. Effective leaders champion people development.
As a leader, it's not about you, it's about others in your business, says Gravenkemper. “As you move up, your success is no longer determined by your individual efforts, it's how effectively the people underneath you perform," he says. A leader sets the tone at an organization, and that tone can help shape a culture that embraces priorities such as mentoring others and building strong teams. “Part of what you're talking about is how do you help your people develop their people," says Gravenkemper. Those efforts can cascade through the business.
4. Effective leaders demonstrate resilience and agility.
Learning from setbacks is part of the job, and often demands a fair amount of improvising and adjusting. Gravenkemper says he has learned a fair number of agility skills in an unexpected place: improv classes. “One of the key tenets of improv is 'yes, and,'—so the idea that whatever is presented by your scene partner you accept as reality and then you build on it," he says. Improv also demands collaboration and co-creation, both traits that help in leadership. By applying this mindset to a business scenario, Gravenkemper says leaders can learn to be more adaptable and able to bounce forward when challenges arise, improvising as the world changes around them.
5. Effective leaders communicate with key stakeholders.
People invested in a company—whether they're shareholders, clients, customers or employees—want to know what's going on. Transparency is important, says Gravenkemper. He thinks back to a conversation he had with a nurse at a hospital where he was consulting. “She said, 'Steve, you know when the leaders are not saying anything, they're thinking of things too terrible to even mention,'" he recalls. In other words, even when a leader is silent, he or she is still communicating something, and people will draw their own conclusions. “You want to get in front of that," he says. Plus, he adds, people tend do a better job when they have the information they need and know what's expected of them.
6. Effective leaders make decisions even in the face of incomplete or ambiguous data.
Business leaders are faced with reams of data today, and yet it can be tempting to wait for more even more information before making a decision. Gravenkemper says that “paralysis by analysis" can be a big mistake. “I think people like to have all of the data before they make the decision, but that's just not the way things are right now," he says. For example, what's going to happen with Brexit? How will tariffs impact manufacturers? How should farmers deal with the trade war with China? These are all important questions, says Gravenkemper, but rather than waiting for the answers, leaders need to make a decision to move forward based on the information available, and then adjust as needed. “If you don't decide, you're just standing still," he says. “If you act, then you have more information."
The world's changing so quickly that people have to be open to new information, and also be open to the opinions and ideas of others.
—Steve Gravenkemper, consulting psychologist
There are many ways to be a leader. In Gravenkemper's career, he's seen that most effective leaders are willing to leave their comfort zones to learn something new, and they're able to listen to others and adapt to change as needed. “If a leader has a high need to be right, or if they have a high need to demonstrate that they're the smartest person in the room, that can shut down conversation," he says.
“Boldness is a positive thing for a leader," he adds. “Arrogance is not."
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