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December 22, 2020


What is effective leadership?

Table of leaders meeting

Leadership is critical to our everyday lives. At work, at home, with colleagues or friends, leadership can be used to create positive situations and experiences wherever you are.

Effective leaders in the workplace don’t have to be in management positions—rather they are able to use their leadership skills to help all of their colleagues follow their lead to higher morale and better outcomes for their organization. These skills can help you be a better employee, colleague, and participant in your organization. Traits that help motivate, inspire, and create sound strategy effectively move you into a better leadership role, whatever your job title. The definition of a manager isn't necessarily the same as a leader, and effective leadership skills can transform your entire organization.

While effective leadership principles can be applied to just about any workplace setting—businesses, hospitals, classrooms—these skills can also serve as a guide to leading groups of people outside the office. For instance, a volunteer with the most experience would likely be the best choice for someone to effectively lead, motivate, inspire, and train new volunteers for a charity. In another example, a wedding planner relies heavily on a team to execute the bride and groom’s strategy and vision and vice versa—the team relies on the planner to give direction on how to implement all the details that constitute that vision. The success of the “big day” depends on how effective the planner’s leadership is. Was the planner open to ideas from the team? Was direction clear? Were expectations feasible? All of these factor into the definition of effective leadership. Hosting a book club is an example in which most people wouldn’t likely think of in terms of effective leadership, perhaps because of its intimate, informal nature. But in order for the club to thrive, someone needs to establish ground rules for the group—how to select a book, how often to meet, where to meet, etc.

What these three scenarios have in common is that they feature a group in need of someone that can be counted on for ideas and information to help the group reach its goals. That’s where effective leadership comes in. Utilizing these skills and traits shows leadership effectiveness and ensures that your group, whether colleagues or your friends, has what it needs to be successful.

To become an effective leader takes practice and dedication. It’s a discipline you have to keep working at. But the beauty in this admirable endeavor is that—as the above examples illustrate—you can find opportunities to hone this skill in everyday life or apply it to more structured settings, such as on the job or in an online degree program

Boardroom meeting with visionary leader

What defines an effective leader?

No matter who they are leading, effective leaders have the following key characteristics in common. 

  1. Uses clear communication. Listening well. Speaking clearly. To lead well, you need to have a strong command of both. Whether you’re leading one person or a thousand, solid communication skills are crucial to helping prevent problems, clearing up misunderstandings, letting employees know what is expected of them, encouraging team members to raise issues and concerns, and getting everyone on the same page so they can work toward shared goals.

  2. Has strong self-confidence. Self-confidence and effective leadership go hand in hand. Leaders are leaders because they know what they want, have a clear vision of how to obtain goals, and are comfortable leading others. Note that while self-confidence is key to successful leadership, being overly self-confident (aka cocky) can be off-putting and risks losing respect from those who look to you for direction. So remain humble in your self-confidence by being real, approachable, and not overstepping your power as a leader. If you believe in your leadership abilities, it’s more likely others will too. The best leaders channel their confidence to encourage and lift up those around them because they know this is an effective way to grow an organization—together. 

  3. Values the strengths of those around them. Good leaders work with individuals to show them how they benefit and why they matter to the organization. Teamwork does indeed make the dream work if a leader recognizes the strengths and contributions of team members. Everyone wins—employees feel valued and leaders gain devoted collaborators who can help them achieve their vision for the company. 

  4. Leads through example. Effective leaders earn the respect of those around them not just by saying but by doing. Working alongside team members sends the message that “I am with you. We can do this together.” Let’s say the CEO of a company made a regretful business decision that impacted the entire company. How this individual handles the matter is a great example of leading by example. Pointing the finger of blame at members of the organization can paint a negative picture of the leader’s character. On the other hand, if the leader takes full responsibility for the error, it’s more likely the leader’s level of respect by employees will be favorable. 

  5. Is highly involved in operations. It is so important that a leader demonstrates a good understanding of and personal investment in many different areas, rather than just presiding from on high. Again, this helps garner respect because every team in an organization wants its leadership’s support. A leader who pays attention to the concerns of every employee and/or team can spur greater camaraderie and boost team morale within the organization, and this camaraderie, in turn, could help drive efficiency and encourage higher productivity.

  6. Is patient and level-headed. When problems arise in an organization, a good leader is calm, determined, and committed to solving them. These qualities can encourage employees to stay positive as challenges arise. Consider an opposite scenario in which a CEO, for instance, is freaking out about a deadline and his angst is felt among employees. A big minus for team morale. 

  7. Maintains a positive attitude. Effective leaders understand that problems can’t be solved overnight, but they can be handled with optimism. A good, strong leader “galvanizes the troops,” encouraging individuals to maintain a similar spirited attitude. On the contrary, leaders with negative attitudes risk having a demoralizing effect on employees. No value in that whatsoever. 

  8. Does not micromanage. Micromanaging implies that those being managed can’t be trusted, which does nada for morale-building. It was mentioned previously that an effective leader should show interest and support for other projects and in other areas, but this doesn’t mean they need to nitpick and be involved in every little aspect. Instead, they should make suggestions and trust that their teams know what they are doing and allow them to do it.

  9. Practices a healthy lifestyle. As a leader, all eyes are on you. So you have everything to gain by maintaining, and even exuding, a healthy lifestyle. Are leaders who take good care of themselves more likely to take good care of the organization and people they lead? Strong possibility. Can their daily walk after lunch encourage the mental fortitude they need to make impactful decisions? Absolutely. 

  10. Is committed to transparency. In the working world, transparency equals trust, and a good leader understands this. Many of today’s most successful companies include a policy of transparency among their core values. When you have nothing to hide, you have everything to gain. Transparency means being open and honest, and inviting conversation and feedback. Without transparency, employees lose respect and trust for leadership and are bound to take their skills and credentials elsewhere. 

  11. Does not play favorites. Favoritism is more often expressed in actions than words, which can create a fine line for leaders to walk on. What if they tended to gravitate more toward one director of a team more than another? Not good. This risks creating tension and bitterness between teams that might have to collaborate on a project. If there isn’t an even playing field of attention from higher up, resentment will rear its ugly head. Leaders can avoid playing favorites by being highly conscious of treating everyone equally, giving praise where praise is due, and being mindful if they might be devoting an uneven amount of time to one individual, project, or department.  

  12. Holds themselves to a high standard. This ties closely to the quality of leading by example. An organization has everything to gain with a commitment to high standards, and it can be a great source of pride for a company. Good leaders typically establish high standards as a tenet of the organization’s culture, ensuring they apply to everything from a professional dress code to a polished script for service reps to refer to when assisting customers. 

  13. Strives for good ethics and integrity. Being a good leader requires creating a positive ethical culture in a company. It’s also a tremendous responsibility that should be put into practice daily. When you hold a position of power for an organization, you must demonstrate moral behavior in the workplace. Investors, customers, and employees are more likely to trust a company with an ethical leader at its helm. An example of ethical leadership could be as simple as recognizing that employees are stressed and then offering them the support they need to rise above it. Most often, having good ethics and integrity is also about having empathy. Ethics is such a foundational facet in business today that it has become a key part of the curriculum for master’s-level business management programs

  14. Values innovation and unique input. Organizations need to adapt to changing times in order to succeed. Doing things the way they’ve always done things doesn’t always work in a quickly evolving society. In fact, resistance to change can prove fatal. For instance, a once-popular clothing chain shutters its doors after suffering from lack of an online presence like its competitors. But change can also be a good thing, and good leaders embrace them by valuing innovation and welcoming new ideas because they know these are necessary to stay competitive and move the company forward. Effective business leaders understand they have much more to gain by the feedback of others than by relying on their ideas alone. 

  15. Stands up for those around them. Good leaders unify and uplift the whole team. When employees feel like someone is in their corner, the boost to morale can be huge. It has the power to encourage sharing of ideas, increasing productivity and efficiency, and inspiring employees to advance their careers within the company. 

A lifetime pursuit of education can give leaders (and leaders on the rise) valuable new insights, and there are several online degree programs available that can help enhance leadership skills. If you are a busy working professional looking to step up your leadership game in the fields of healthcare, business, IT, or teaching, WGU offers flexible online degree programs in each field with leadership courses as an invaluable part of the curriculum. Take the lead in your career and apply today!

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