People always seem to be striving to become effective leaders. They constantly read new material on how to be better leaders, yet they never seem to truly get it. How do you become an effective leader? What exactly is effective leadership?
I have developed six principles of effective leadership. First, the effective leader leads by example. Leadership is influence and a person must realize this before they can become an effective leader. A leader must be a teacher and a mentor. A person cannot become an effective leader without knowing how to teach people. A leader does not always have to be a mentor, but I have found that the most effective leaders I know are. Most great leaders were influenced by someone else. A teacher or mentor awakens truth within a person, which they can reclaim years later when thinking about that persons impact on their life (The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer).
If an effective leader must lead by example, than they must first be able to lead themselves. In their book, The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write: “The quest for leadership is first an inner quest to discover who you are. Through self-development comes the confidence needed to lead.” It goes on to say, “Learning to lead is about discovering what you care about and value. About what inspires you. About what challenges you. About what gives you power and competence. About what encourages you. When you discover these things about yourself, you’ll know what it takes to lead those qualities out of others.”
The second principle of an effective leader is that they believe in people. An effective leader must be able to develop the people whom he or she is leading, and this cannot be done without belief in them. A belief in people is really about trust. A leader cannot do everything themselves. They need their followers in order to be successful.
In order to believe in people, a leader must have people skills. This is important because it is not just about the leader believing in people, but about the people believing in the leader and knowing that he or she believes in them. This cannot be done without good people skills, as described in The Leadership Challenge. Kouzes and Posner state that: People want their leaders to be honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. “There may be notable excavations, but it is highly unlikely that a leader can succeed without both relevant experience and, most important, exceptionally good people skills.”
The third principle is directly related with the second. It is that effective leaders attract involvement. If a leader leads by a good example and believes in his or her people than they will become more involved. There is a leadership term that I have often heard that relates to employee involvement and that is “buy-in.” Most leaders and companies are seeking buy-in from their employees, but they should be attracting it rather than seeking.
Buy-in can be attracted simply by getting people involved with the decision making. An effective leader must encourage participation. This can be done by asking them their opinions about changes or for their suggestions. Before making changes that will affect people, it is useful and considerate to consult them. It is also important to look for ways to build on ideas and suggestions. This can be done by not focusing on the weakness of an idea, but by looking at its strengths. This surely will attract buy-in from employees.
Delegation is also an important part of attracting involvement, but it fits better with the fourth principle, which is that an effective leader knows how to share power. Before discussing delegation, it is important to discuss power. Use and misuse of power is not always the problem with ineffective leaders, rather it’s the idea of sharing power. With great influence (leadership) comes great power. Power involves the capacity of one party to influence another party.
Shared power is important because it allows everyone to be more involved, as discussed in the third principle. Everyone has a need to feel powerful. “People who feel powerless, be they managers or individual contributors, tend to hoard whatever shreds of power they have” (Kouzes and Posner). This is where delegation comes into play. A leader must delegate in order to share power, so he or she does not become wrapped up in all the power. The effective leader also knows that burnout is always right around the corner and they need to delegate and share power in order to avoid it. Delegation also gets the employees more involved and can even help them develop. It is a way to facilitate development of the skills necessary to perform key responsibilities in a higher position.
The fifth principle is that an effective leader communicates effectively. Communication problems in organizations usually stem from the leader. The leader is responsible for creating a proper environment for effective communication. In order to do this, the leader must be aware first of his or her own communication style. “To become a credible leader you have to learn to express yourself in ways that are uniquely your own” (Kouzes and Posner). If a leader does this, than he or she can find their communication style and can communicate more effectively with people.
Effective communication is the key to accountability, which is an imperative aspect of leadership. Without proper communication people cannot take responsibility for their actions. “Unless people take responsibility and unless they are held accountable for their own actions, we’re not inclined to want to work with them nor much inclined to cooperate in general” (Kouzes and Posner). This goes back to the first principle, which was that leadership is influence. In order to have effective communication and to foster accountability in an organization, the leader must communicate well with employees and more importantly take responsibility for their own actions.
The sixth principle is that an effective leader must be a motivator. This requires using all of the previous principles and encouraging others to be all they can be. Effective leaders realize that their own success and the success of the organization are reliant on the employees. Most people think motivation is about charisma and about firing people up, but that is not how I see it at all.
Motivation is simply listening, providing feedback, encouraging, being positive and most importantly, expecting the best. Listening is an important factor because without it, one cannot understand another person and therefore cannot build relationships. “Learning to understand and see things from another’s perspective-to walk in their shoes-is absolutely crucial to building trusting relations and to career success.” Providing feedback keeps people engaged. “People’s motivation to increase productivity on a task increases only when they have a challenging goal and receive feedback on their progress” (Kouzes and Posner).
Everyone needs encouragement in order to be motivated. Encouragement is a form of feedback, but requires the leader to get even closer to the employee. This establishes a connection, which will motivate the employee to perform better and increase productivity. Being positive with people is also important. “It’s human nature: when we’re being watched by a person who is looking for our faults, we act differently than we do in a supportive environment in which there’s opportunity to be rewarded for special achievements” (Kouzes and Posner).
The most important aspect of motivation is expecting the best of people. How can someone live up to their full potential if they are not expected to do so? If a leader expects the best out of their employees, they will boost the employee’s confidence, which can lead to great success. “Leaders treat people in a way that bolsters their self-confidence, making it possible for them to achieve more than they may have initially believed possible of themselves” (Kouzes and Posner). It is vital for an effective leader to realize that high expectations lead to high performance.
Those are the six principles of an effective leader that I have developed over the years. It is also important for me to address a couple other things that are important when talking about leadership. First, effective leadership is a choice. Before one can use these six principles, they must choose to become an effective leader. Second, I have to say that the idea of someone actually becoming an “effective leader” is somewhat of a pipedream. There is no such thing. No leader is perfect. I have never met a truly effective leader. I believe that the term “leader in training” works best when talking about effective leadership. One of the most important words in leadership is development and a true leader in training realizes this. They never stop learning and developing the principles of effective leadership.
Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.