What Are Leadership Skills? (And How to Develop Them)

Sam Cook


What Are Leadership Skills? (And How to Develop Them)

Here’s a fun fact for you: Between 2004 and today, the country with the highest volume of Google Searches for leadership skills was Botswana. As Africa’s oldest uninterrupted democracy within a continent still reeling from the destabilizing impact of the colonial era, it’s no surprise that Botswana is a bit obsessed with the concept of good and effective leadership.

Leadership skills Google Trends search.

If anything, though, Botswana’s example is indicative of the fact that organizations, be they business or government, only succeed when the people in charge have the right leadership skills. While an organization can’t ride singularly on the shoulders of its leader, the skills that a good leader brings to bear will make the difference between success and failure. And that applies at every level within the organization where leaders exist, from the manager level and upward.

Leadership is a complex role, but the leadership skills needed to succeed in that role aren’t always part of someone’s natural personality. In this post, we’ll help you better understand what type of skills leaders need to succeed and how to make sure emerging leaders at your organization acquire those skills.

What Is the Definition of Leadership?

Leadership is about guiding a group towards a shared goal—a goal they couldn’t achieve as separate individuals. But what happens along that journey is what complicates the nature of leadership. Not every leadership approach is a one-size-fits-all.

Some methods resonate better with certain groups, while others might fall flat. Understanding the people you work with is key to choosing the right leadership style.

A more comprehensive way to describe leadership might be to see it as a combination of actions and behaviors influencing a group’s results as everyone works towards a collective aim. Throughout this journey, a good leader will reinforce the group’s beliefs or introduce new perspectives.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Yet good leadership appears to be on a troubling downtrend.

Data from the 2023 Global Leadership Forecast is particularly concerning: 40% of respondents have noticed a decline in leadership quality. In fact, from the previous year, there’s been a drop of as much as 17%—the most significant decline in perceived leadership quality in the last decade.

Given how critical leadership is, this trend has companies everywhere raising eyebrows. It leads us to an important question: What truly defines a great leader? Is it the specific skills and attributes they possess? If that’s the case, it’s hardly surprising that the leadership development industry in the US alone is worth a staggering $165.3 billion, with a global valuation of $366 billion, according to Training Industry.

Generally, a strict definition of leadership isn’t as important as understanding the skills required to be a good leader. Different leadership styles might dictate how you lead in any given situation, but the type of skills needed are generally universally applied across those leadership styles.

Leaders should be astute enough to identify what works in one scenario and what doesn’t in another. To master this, a successful leader needs a set of skills and attributes that can be tailored to varying contexts, coupled with the flexibility to adapt as situations change.

What Are Leadership Skills?

Many believe that leaders are born, not made. That’s rarely the case, even with people whose personality naturally lends itself to leadership. In most cases, those who are “natural born leaders” hone skills over time, showcasing their ability to guide people and processes toward a common goal.

Case in point: A 2017 twin study found that leadership was 30% genetic and 70% environmental. Some aspects of leadership may come down to being born with it, but most of one’s leadership skills and abilities are learned.

Whether you’re inherently inclined toward leadership or aim to nurture it through development programs, there are a few must-have, valuable leadership skills. These include:

  • The ability to make strategic decisions
  • Knowing how and when to delegate tasks
  • Understanding what motivates team members and how to motivate effectively

Being a leader doesn’t mean you need to excel at everything. However, flexibility in demonstrating core skills that drive and sustain an organization’s success is expected.

The “nature vs. nurture” debate will likely be with us for all time, but one thing is certain: foundational leadership skills can be acquired and refined. Those skills are most easily taught when you understand who your high potential employees are and have strategies in place to help them identify and close leadership skills gaps.

5 Key Pillars of Leadership Skills

We could probably give you a list of skills a mile long. Instead, we’ll whittle down your list to the 5 most important leadership skills that stand as pillars for all the others. Consider these the starting point for developing leadership, either for yourself or as part of a high potential mentoring program.

1. Communication Skills

Great leadership is often built on the foundation of strong communication. It isn’t just about conveying ideas; it’s about inspiring change and fostering trust. Not all inspiring speakers are good leaders, but exceptional leaders undoubtedly understand the art of communication.

And most understand that communication is more than just saying words that inspire people. Leaders who excel at communication use it to do all of the following:

  • Set clear objectives: Whether it’s defining the organization’s mission or setting individual tasks, leaders use communication to make sure everyone understands their roles and goals.
  • Build trust: Open, honest, and transparent dialogue fosters an environment of trust. Leaders don’t just issue commands; they listen and engage in conversation.
  • Foster collaboration: Effective communication breaks down silos and builds a culture of teamwork. Leaders facilitate this by being accessible and encouraging open discussions.
  • Manage conflict: Navigating and mediating conflicts through skilled communication is essential for maintaining a cohesive team.
  • Gather feedback: Leaders actively seek and give feedback to make continuous improvements. They listen to criticisms and suggestions alike.
  • Educate and mentor: Skillful leaders use communication to develop their team members, offering guidance, mentoring, and training opportunities.
  • Promote transparency: Through regular updates and information sharing, leaders keep their teams well-informed, which helps in decision-making and boosts morale.
  • Adapt and innovate: Communication isn’t static. Leaders adapt their style and methods depending on the situation or audience, thereby fostering innovation.
  • Celebrate successes and learn from failures: Communication is vital to celebration and learning, whether acknowledging a job well done or analyzing a mishap.

As part of communication skills, empathy emerges as a cornerstone. Leaders who understand and show empathy can view situations from diverse perspectives and nurture connections, especially with their employees. A nuanced understanding of emotions facilitates purposeful interactions and ensures that words and actions resonate deeply. This interplay of emotions extends to emotional intelligence—a trait that enables leaders to be introspective, managing their emotions adeptly.

Among words and feelings, the act of listening—genuine, active listening—can’t be sidelined. Leaders who genuinely listen will foster innovation and continually seek feedback, and in doing so, they cultivate a broader self-awareness and critical thinking, setting aside biases and embracing fresh approaches.

2. Change Management Skills

The dynamic landscape of today’s business environment has given rise to the concept of change management. Whether change within the organization is ultimately good or bad will depend on how skillful an organization’s leaders are at managing those changes.

Leaders who can adeptly navigate change are those who push their teams in the right direction. This is where a leader’s persuasion skills step in. Leaders must act as a compass or anchor, depending on the situation.

Within the realm of change management, leaders need to hone multiple abilities, including:

  • Persuasion
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving

What’s more, change management can be rocky and emotional, to say the least. Events such as mergers and acquisitions, restructuring or downsizing, new product launches, and adapting to regulatory changes require leaders who can see the right path forward and communicate the strategy in a way that gets the company or organization on board with that direction.

3. People management skills

At the heart of leadership lies the responsibility of managing people, which requires a delicate balance of authority and compassion.

Here enters steward leadership—a leadership style that flips conventional leadership on its head.

Leaders can no longer use intimidation and threats as their go-to style. Steward leaders foster engagement and loyalty, always mindful of their actions’ ripple effects. Steward leaders prioritize building a community, recognizing that trust and purpose are the twin pillars of a positive environment.

As leaders walk this path, conflicts are inevitable. Yet, the mark of an effective leader isn’t in sidestepping these conflicts but in healing and unifying. And, while individual growth is celebrated, there’s magic in collective growth—a truth that the best leaders understand and champion.

4. Strategic thinking skills

Leaders with strategic thinking skills don’t just react to trends; they anticipate them. They possess the audacity (in a good way) to challenge the status quo, taking calculated risks to propel their organizations into the future.

I’ll pull another food history example for you like I did in our post on financial leadership.

By the mid-1900s, Coca-Cola was pretty much the dominant soda company in the US and the world. As far as colas went, it was untouchable. Then, in 1975, PepsiCo launched its famous “Pepsi Challenge,” a side-by-side blind taste test that showed people preferred the taste of Pepsi if they couldn’t see the brand name. This genius strategy, thought up by PepsiCo marketing executive David McCay, helped the company quickly grow its market share from 6% to 14%.

The audacity!

It’s a perfect example to show how strategic thinkers master the art of balancing a holistic, big-picture perspective with a grounded awareness of present realities. PepsiCo understood what it had when it ran small-scale blind taste tests that were favorable to its product. Having the strategic mindset to launch that campaign broadly and run it for years also meant knowing how to keep that campaign fresh and inventive while still getting the desired results.

While strategic leaders rise above the immediacies of day-to-day operations to understand how elements interconnect in the broader industry landscape, they also ensure that their forward-looking visions are rooted in a deep understanding of current capabilities, resources, and challenges.

This dual focus ensures their strategies are expansive in ambition yet firmly anchored in the present, making them both visionary and achievable.

5. Delivery and planning skills

Every decision a leader makes reverberates throughout the organization. The nuances of delivery and planning, therefore, become indispensable. 

Operational leadership encapsulates this idea, emphasizing the significance of clear objectives and streamlined procedures. Such clarity extends to risk management, where leaders assess challenges, develop proactive measures, and prioritize organization over chaos.

For effective leaders, organization isn’t just about structure; it’s about establishing expectations, fostering accountability, and ensuring a smooth journey toward success.

How to Develop Leadership Skills

The first step to develop leadership skills is to identify those skills you need to develop for yourself or that need more development within your company’s leadership teams. Once you know the essential abilities that propel a team’s success and that fits with your company culture, the spotlight turns to professional development.

While individuals often rise to leadership positions due to their inherent talents, many people point to the Peter Principle as the reason why leaders are terrible. It’s not. People aren’t promoted to the point of incompetence. Companies fail to properly train them in management and leadership skills before promoting them.

CliQ into this Mentoring Masterminds video to learn more about incorporating DEI into your leadership development strategy.

A West Monroe survey found that 34% of managers claimed they had no training before getting promoted, and 10% reported they had just 0-2 hours of training. Only 34% stated they had more than 9 hours before getting promoted. It’s say so say, that’s not enough, and it’s indicative of organizations lacking a proper leadership development track or high potential employee development strategy.

Long story short: Yes, developing leadership skills is important. And bigger yes: It should, in an ideal world, happen before someone goes into a leadership position and then continue after they’ve been promoted.

Here’s a bit of guidance on how to make that happen.

1. Prioritize the development of communication skills

Leadership always involves working with team members, assigning tasks, and supervising performance to guarantee team progression. Thus, strong communication skills emerge as a priority. Successful leaders use communication not only to align team members with company objectives but also to foster trust, engagement, and a shared vision among them. 

A leader’s communication abilities should encompass active listening and open communication.

Individuals who are likely to be promoted (your high potentials) or those recently promoted (your new leaders) should be enrolled in training and development programs that focus specifically on communication skills. If communication has enough depth to support an entire undergraduate degree, it’s certainly worthy of support as a standalone training program.

2. Make leadership skill development continuous

It’s a no-brainer: Enhancing your leadership skills requires continuous training, education, and professional development.

This continuous growth is the key differentiator for successful leaders. As market conditions and organizational demands shift, adept leaders must adjust simultaneously. Continually expand your or your leadership teams’ knowledge of what effective leadership looks like.

Several ways you and your leaders can add continual learning and development include:

  • Participate in leadership circles and groups
  • Read current research and case studies
  • Follow thought leaders in the space
  • Take continuing education courses in leadership

Additionally, regular participation in leadership development programs and workshops can provide invaluable tools for improvement.

3. Make mentorship and coaching a core learning format

Leadership mentoring is a highly effective avenue to refine leadership capabilities. While training courses introduce you to leadership theories, mentors offer a window into the practical application of these principles.

Such hands-on exposure demystifies the day-to-day realities successful business leaders face. This immersive approach emphasizes experiential learning, ensuring a deep understanding of leadership nuances.

Interestingly, mentorship isn’t a one-way street. Established leaders can glean insights from their mentees (see Reverse Mentoring), further refining skills like communication.

Take the lead on improving the leadership development process at your company. Book a demo to see how mentoring software enhances the experience for participants and significantly boosts retention.

4. Ensure development includes real-world experience

Real-world experiences act as powerful drivers for leadership development. These encounters are pretty similar to on-the-job training, even without the formal framework.

For instance, managing workplace conflicts, be it with peers or superiors, offers invaluable lessons in diplomacy and conflict resolution itself. Leadership often requires navigating a mosaic of personalities and challenges.

Job shadowing and reach assignments are good strategies here. Both allow future and existing leaders to see what leadership looks like outside of theory and put concepts into practice. Make sure you make time for reflection afterward.

5. Incorporate networking into the development process

Networking is more than just a business buzzword—it’s a transformative tool for aspiring leaders. By diving deep into conversations with peers from various sectors, both within and outside your organization, you embark on a journey of learning and discovery. These dynamic exchanges allow you to tap into different leadership styles, success stories, challenges faced, and innovative solutions employed by other leaders.

Furthermore, these interactions often reveal nuances and subtleties of leadership not found in textbooks or formal training programs. As you broaden your network, consider forming bonds with mentors or joining mentor networks. Such relationships offer enriched, firsthand insights that can finely tune any leader’s compass. Over time, these varied encounters mold leadership styles and foster adaptability, ensuring leadeers remain relevant and effective in ever-evolving professional landscapes.

6. Self-reflection and assessment

Women at a table developing leadership skills through group sessions.

Last but not least, make sure self-reflection and assessment are an element of any leadership skills development program. Self-reflection is about turning the lens inward and analyzing one’s actions, decisions, and underlying motivations. By routinely setting aside moments for introspection, leaders become more attuned to their leadership strengths and areas that could use enhancement.

Leaders should be candid with themselves during these reflective periods. Self-reflection is a time to celebrate success and confront and learn from mistakes. By identifying both the peaks and valleys of their leadership journey, leaders can chart a clearer path toward excellence.

Incorporating regular constructive feedback from peers, subordinates, and mentors is ideal, which can add valuable perspectives to a leader’s self-assessment. Observations from others can reveal blind spots. Embracing this continual self-evaluation process ensures that leaders remain grounded, agile, and poised for growth in their leadership roles.

Why Are Leadership Skills Important?

The leadership development and training industry is vast, with companies collectively spending around $60 billion each year on cultivating leadership skills.

But is it worth the investment?

From an individual’s perspective, honed leadership skills can be a game-changer for career advancement and unlocking prime job opportunities. Given how much businesses are spending on leadership development, walking in with these key skills already in your toolkit instantly boosts your value to potential employers.

Beyond personal benefits, leadership skills are pivotal in rallying people around a shared mission. A top-tier leader can align team members’ actions with the company’s vision and overarching objectives. Moreover, the best leaders empower their teams, nurturing their growth and helping them tap into their full potential.

In essence, individuals with essential leadership skills can drive an entire organization toward its vision and objectives, always focusing on the bigger picture and motivating others to do the same.

Turning Your Attention to Leadership Skills

In an age where employee retention is high and motivation is low, effective leadership is more important than ever. While the statistics may indicate a concerning dip in perceived leadership quality, they reinforce individuals’ and organizations’ need to invest in nurturing leadership skills, starting before you promote high potential employees into those positions.

Start that process by exploring what 92% of Fortune 500 companies have discovered works best. Deploy a mentoring program grounded in software that leads to vastly better results.

Sam Cook

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