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The 7 essential qualities of great leaders

By Marianne Page, founder of Marianne Page Ltd

If you want to become the leader that your team want to follow, there are seven essential skills you need to master, to achieve your goal.

  1. Your Mindset – recognising that leadership is responsibility not power
  2. Your Team Building skills – hiring the people who share your values and buy into your vision
  3. Your Team’s Performance – helping every team member to fulfil their potential
  4. Your Feedback skills – giving feedback that inspires improved performance – every time!
  5. Your Communication skills – the golden thread running through all of the other essential skills
  6. Your Team’s Rhythm – setting the pace, keeping everyone focused on continuous improvement
  7. Your Personal Management System – protecting your own time and energy, and remembering that you need development too

Chief amongst all of these is communication.

Whenever I go into a business and talk to the team, one of their biggest complaints is always about communication – that they aren’t communicated with effectively, that they don’t know what’s going on, that they’re kept in the dark.  When they’re given information, it’s often too late, or missing important details.

To be seen as a great communicator by your team is crucial for any leader, and it’s essential for keeping your team engaged.  And we all know that an engaged team have real enthusiasm for their work, they’re emotionally committed to your team and its goals, they don’t leave you, they are way more productive and they take ownership for their role.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of research out there that tells us less than a third of employees are engaged, and that leaders, and the way we communicate, are largely to blame for this shocking statistic.

Here are the 7 most common mistakes leaders make:

Marianne Page
Marianne Page

Not communicating enough
One of the biggest complaints I hear from teams is that they are not kept informed of what’s going on in the business, with many managers believing that information should be given on a ‘need to know’ basis.  What they miss out on by keeping their team in the dark, is the trust that comes from transparency, and the engagement that comes from a belief that we’re all in this together. Open communication really is essential to building a successful team.

Underestimating your team’s knowledge and ability
One of the biggest mistakes I see managers making is to treat their team members as if they are stupid, lazy and occasionally belligerent children.
Whether you have hired well (to your values) or not, I believe that everyone who comes to work with you is full of potential, has their own motivation, and is usually smart (whether that’s street smart or educationally smart), and it’s up to you to engage them in a way that draws the very best out of them. Treat people like stupid children, and they will usually behave that way.  Treat them as the bright and capable adults that they are, give them the training that they need, and they will blossom and shine.

Let’s be honest! We all know that leaders lie to their employees all the time.  Little white lies and big fat porky pies.  And this lying is very much linked to mistakes one and two – trying to hide the truth from the team and treating them like children.
Lying is a dangerous game for a leader to play, regardless of the motivation for doing it.  Lies have a way of being uncovered by your very smart team, and there is no quicker way to lose trust and respect, than to be caught in a lie.
Every team values a manager who is straight with them – who they can rely on to tell them the honest truth, and not sugar-coat feedback or bad news, a manager who delivers on their promises.  When you tell somebody straight what the situation is, or how they need to improve their performance, you give them a chance, and the choice, to think and act for themselves.

Being unapproachable
Many leaders wrongly believe that to be a good people manager they have to be aloof from their team. Some go on a power trip, barking orders, before disappearing behind a closed door, not to be disturbed, leaving their team floundering, and too afraid to ask for help.
As a communication strategy, this is disastrous.  All of the communication is one way – from you to the team, and certainly not delivered in a productive way.  Problems and challenges are left unresolved because your team don’t see the point in raising them, and over time, your operation becomes increasingly inefficient and dysfunctional.

Being too approachable
On the other hand, it’s also a problem to be there to answer every question and give the solution to every problem.  You want your team to think for themselves, and you also want to protect your own time, while giving your team the time and the input they need.

Over-using e mail
There are two major issues with e mail communication between a leader and their team.
One is overuse. In general we all send way too many e mails and worse still, we often expect an almost immediate response, regardless of the day or time it is sent.
The second issue is that weaker leaders hide behind e mail rather than being straight and having that honest conversation we were talking about a minute ago.
We all know the communication problems that e mail can cause, with even the most carefully crafted e mail, being misinterpreted and not received as the sender intended it.  As a result, e mail bullying (intentional or not) is a very real threat in every workplace, and it’s up to you to make sure that you don’t go down this path.
It’s up to you to create a culture of open and honest face to face communication.

Believing that ‘I sent an e mail’ is enough
A third issue with e mail, is a leader over-relying on an e mail to get their message across to their team, or an individual within it. Not following up to check that the message was received at all, let alone as intended.  Not taking into account possible technology glitches, or an e mail getting lost in someone’s over full inbox.  Not understanding the communication needs of different individuals in their team.
So many problems are caused, and deadlines missed, as a result of this one mistake alone.
E mail is good as a back up to face to face or telephone conversation, but in a highly engaged team, it should never be the only method of communication used.

Ok, so that’s how not to communicate.  Let’s turn our attention to how to communicate well. You’ll have heard of the Shadow of the Leader; how all of your communication – everything you say, and don’t say; everything you do, and don’t do – is being observed, received and acted on, by your team.

How you show up every day, how you respond to challenges and complaints and stressful situations, how true you stay to your stated values in what you say and do, sets the tone for your team, and over time, builds your team culture. So it’s pretty damn important that you’re constantly focused on communicating well. And here’s how to do that…

Communicate in line with your values
What on earth does that mean?
Well if values are the things that are most important to us about how we want to operate and live our life – the compass that guides all of our decisions, behaviours and actions – then I’m talking about communicating in a way that stays true to what’s important to us.

Maybe it’s being kind
Maybe it’s always being straight with people
Maybe it’s always trying to find win-win solutions to problems

Sounds like it should be easy, but of course it isn’t.  We all do things at times that go against our values and leave us feeling cross with ourselves. You know, you wanted to be kind but then you found yourself gossiping about someone and laughing about them behind their back.  Or you had the opportunity to help someone with some really straight-talking feedback, and you fudged it, laughed it off, let them carry on under-performing.

When you do something that goes against your values, you feel it in your gut.  I bet you’ve caught yourself saying ‘It just didn’t feel right’ or ‘I knew I should have listened to my gut’ – well, that’s your values talking, so listen to them, because, when you communicate in line with your values, you feel really good about yourself.

Learn to be more self-aware
You can’t really be a good leader if you don’t know yourself; if you don’t know what your values are, what you struggle with, what your triggers are, what gets you ‘in the zone’.  Being self-aware helps you to be true to yourself, to be more open and authentic in your communication, to understand your successes and failures, and what you need from your team to complement or make up for the skills you have or don’t have.

So how can you begin to develop this awareness?

At least once a week, take time to think and reflect.  I know, it sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it.  It’s a lesson I learned some time ago from a fellow business owner. He told me that every week, he set aside 90 minutes to reflect on the previous 7 days, asking himself questions like:

  •  What was I aiming to achieve?
  •  What went well, and why?
  •   What didn’t, and why?
  •  Did I do anything or say anything that wasn’t in line with my values?
  •  What lessons have I learned about myself this week?
  •  What am I going to do better next week?

Of course, most leaders don’t take time to think. Some might even consider this sort of exercise a waste of valuable time – too fluffy maybe.  But the investment of that 90 minutes, or even a third of that time, once a week, could be the difference between being an average leader, and a great leader.  I’d say that makes it worth the effort.

Listen more than you speak
I’m sure you’ll have come across the saying, ‘you have two ears and one mouth so use them in that proportion’. Be the leader who listens more than they speak. All great communicators listen to their team, giving everyone the opportunity to share their opinion, their knowledge and their experience, making sure that any introverts in their team are not drowned out, watching for non-verbal clues as well as what is said.

Being known for your willingness to listen, brings you closer to your team; it shows you care about them as individuals and their input to the business.  When people feel appreciated in this way, they’re more likely to respect your opinion, which gives you greater influence as a leader.

Listening to your team gives you the chance to catch potential issues before they become big problems. It helps you tap into your team’s energy and notice when someone needs input, or a figurative arm round the shoulder, or some training. Every aspect of your role as leader will benefit from your efforts to become a better listener.

Admit when you don’t know something or when you’re wrong

Few managers want to show vulnerability, but actually, owning a mistake or admitting that you don’t have all the answers, will grow your respect with your team. If you’re honest, say you don’t know something, and ask for their help to work out the answer, you’ll be amazed at the number of brownie points that earns you with the team.

Ask for feedback

‘What can I do better to help you improve your performance?’ is a great question to ask your team members, particularly during performance reviews and 1:1s.  How can I improve? What can I do better? What blocks can I remove that will help you to operate more efficiently/ give our clients a better service?

These questions all show your team that you care, that you know you’re not perfect, and that you value their opinion.  Of course, you then have to reflect on and respond to their feedback, acting on it whenever possible.

Have some fun

Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you have to stop having fun.  Some of the most productive teams I’ve ever worked with put having fun right up near the top of the agenda, and there are loads of studies out there that will tell you that a happy team perform way better than an unhappy one.
What can you do to bring some fun into your workspace?

Know your people

Get to know the person behind the employee, from day one and to be prepared to communicate with them about their life beyond work.

Talking to your people about the things they care most about – their children, their pets, their car, their football team – showing that you’re not just interested in what they can do for you and the business – allowing them to bring a little of what they love into the workplace – inspires much greater engagement in your team.

Be kind

In these days where kindness is at a premium, be a kind communicator. Be firm, be straight as I’ve said before, but also be friendly, consistent and above all fair, finding win-win solutions whenever you can.

Be consistent
Being consistent both in terms of what you communicate and how you communicate will win you an awful lot of respect from your team.

Communicating consistently about the key focus for your team – where you’re headed, what your three big goals are this year/ this quarter/ this month, what progress you’re making, what’s working, what’s not.
Communicating with clarity – keeping things simple, keeping your communication regular. Communicating with confidence.

When you are consistent in the what and the how of your communication, your team know where they’re at and able to work productively with confidence in your leadership, knowing that if there is something they need to know, you’ll tell them.

Communication is the constant, golden thread that runs through every element of your role as a leader.  The degree to which you master these skills, and the effort you put into improving them every day, will determine your success in becoming the leader your team want to follow.