Leadership is a word thrown around a lot these days, but what is it actually about? Why is it such a desirable skill? I try to review the current understanding of this term and provide some practical advice on how anyone can become a leader.
A bit of background: I’ve been the director of the Design & PR department for a year at my faculty’s student association, and then switched domains to become director of Fundraising. This article contains a distilled version of what I’ve learned in the past year-and-a-half of leadership positions, with references included where appropriate. All mistakes in the text are mine.
Leaders have emotional intelligence
I’ll start off the list with the one essential quality good leaders have: emotional intelligence1. As you might imagine, leadership involves a lot of interactions with other people. Both on the small scale, such as smiling to others2 or having a friendly chit-chat with your colleagues3, or on a larger scale, such as holding a meeting which follows its agenda4 and starts and finishes on time5.
If you want a definitive, scientific source on why emotional intelligence is so important in leading others, I’d recommend this Harvard Business Review article on “primal leadership”. It describes how the mood of the leaders can ripple down and affect the performance of all their direct and indirect subordinates6.
Leaders are empathetic
One skill which helps leaders (and not only) is empathy, the ability to pick up on subtle cues in other people’s speech, appearance or behavior, in order to understand their internal emotional state.
It’s easy to see why such an ability is useful: you need to first understand other people’s mood before you can act to improve it or to collaborate with them. You don’t want to tell somebody who’s had a bad day even more bad news; you could save them for the next day, when they could take them better. And if you feel a colleague’s pretty calm and positive, it might be easier to start a talk about some business objective.
How do you develop your empathy? It takes time and effort and a lot of practice, but a scientifically validated way is through mindfulness meditation. In short: the neural pathways for empathy are pretty much the same as the ones for compassion7. While I don’t know a specific exercise for empathy, there are plenty of meditations for practicing compassion. So by increasing your compassion, you can also improve your empathy.
Leaders are excellent listeners
Another important skill is being a good listener. In fact, I’d say paying attention when others are talking is a precondition to being able to empathize with them.
What are the four basic skills of language we are taught in school? Well, it’s reading, writing, listening and speaking. But… how many of us are actually taught to listen?
- You’re given books to read to increase your reading comprehension.
- You have to write letters and essays to develop your writing.
- You have to communicate your thoughts to others all the time, through speaking.
- How often do you practice listening?
Leaders are negotiators
Usually, when a conflict arises at the workplace, the involved parties will bring their complaints to their superiors. As a leader, it’s likely you’ll have to mediate both explicit conflicts (when two people disagree on a choice and come to you for a decision) as well as implicit ones (e.g. those two people who never get along and you have to always calm them down or don’t put them to work together).
There’s a lot written on the art of negotiation, but a very good start which will get you far is to understand and apply principled negotiation (a technique developed by some very smart people at Harvard). And if negotiations fail, there’s a whole field of study called conflict management which tries to mitigate the negative effects of such a scenario.
No matter how you approach it, the other emotional intelligence skills are also essential. Empathy will help you sense the mood of the people involved, and active listening will help you understand each side’s perspective.
Leaders are informed
Emotional intelligence will get you far in dealing with others, but you’ll also need some rational intelligence to back up your choices and decisions. Simply put, the best leaders are smart8.
As a leader, you’ll have to improve at two things:
- tactics: How to best perform the ongoing activities of your work.
- strategy: How to plan your activities over a longer period of time to get better outcomes with less pain.
Some concrete examples from my experience as Director of Fundraising:
- Choosing a timeline for the Fundraising process or selecting which companies we want to invite to our event are strategic choices.
- Figuring out a way to get an answer from a company who doesn’t respond to our emails is a tactical problem.
It’s unlikely you’ll be good at these things when you first start out. You’ll quickly develop tactics as you or your team tries to do things and fails, and this know-how will help you avoid mistakes in the future. When it comes to strategy, you just have to reflect on longer periods of time: after a few months of decision-making, your experience will help you see which were good and which were bad (feedback also helps a lot in this case).
Leadership is a skill; it can be learned, developed, and passed on. But you should also increase your know-how of the domain you’re active in. For example, when I became the director of the Design & PR department, I barely knew the basics of graphics design and online communication; but by the end, I could train people and offer them advice (I learned from my own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of the other volunteers). Same goes for Fundraising; in time, I learned how to write convincing emails, negotiate deals and prepare contracts, and now I could easily pass on these skills to others.
Leaders have vision
What is vision?
First, let me clarify a bit what I understand through “vision”, since it’s an overloaded term which gets thrown around a lot nowadays.
Whenever you do something in life, you almost always do it in two distinct phases:
- you think about what you want to do (planning)
- you go ahead and do it (execution)
Just think about these examples:
- Maybe you ate an omelet this morning? It means you first thought about having an omelet (perhaps your appetite helped), then you went about actually making it.
- Maybe you painted your room? You first thought that you didn’t like the current color and that it would look better in another one, and then you painted it.
In both cases, the first step (when you think about what you want to do, and what outcome you want to achieve) is what’s understood by having a vision9.
The word vision itself has a pretty simple meaning at base: the ability to see. But in this context, vision is about “seeing” how you’d like things to unfold in your imagination.
Why do leaders need a vision?
Quite simple: because people will often come to you and ask what they’re supposed to do. If you have a clear understanding of how you’d like a project to end up, and what outcomes you want to achieve, then you can share this vision with them and it should be clear how they can actually help you.
Of course, once you know where you want to get, there are usually multiple ways to get there. How you develop and implement the best plan of action is a different topic from leadership (it mostly falls under management).
How to develop a vision
This is quite an open-ended question.
- If you’ve ever dreamt of something, then you had a vision (even if for a brief moment).
- If you ever got an idea of how you can improve a product or a project, you had vision.
- If you thought you could improve society with a simple change, you had vision.
I find it easier to sketch my vision on the long term by reviewing what I’m currently doing, thinking about why am I doing what I’m doing (e.g. why am I working for this organization or that one, what’s its mission), what my current objectives and priorities are, etc. Reflective thought really helps!
Research studies have also shown that mindfulness helps foster creativity.
You don’t need anything to start being a leader. When I got elected as the department director for Design & PR, it was quite an exciting but also scary moment. It’s normal to experience the impostor syndrome in such a situation, your mind filled with thoughts that “you’re not good enough” and that “you’ll fail”. The best thing to do is to acknowledge such thoughts and then move on to solving problems as they appear. Think thoughts such as “it doesn’t matter if I’m the worst ever at my job” or “I’m doing my best”10.
One common feedback I received is that I didn’t smile at all during the first meetings I held; people felt like I didn’t really like what I was doing or that I was forced to be there. Or I’ve been told I spoke like a robot, with a monotonous tone. I’ve since worked on smiling more often and improved my non-verbal communication skills. It wasn’t the end of my career, it was just a minor setback I’ve since resolved.
I hope this article has been helpful and provided you with some actionable steps on how to improve your leadership skills. It will be a long journey, but it’s up to you to make it pleasant. And remember, the world wants you to succeed; most people will forgive your past mistakes, and will be very happy to see you improve 😁
These conversations help people bond and discover new things about one another; but it’s really important to listen mindfully (see the sections below) if you want to get the most out of your social interactions. ↩
I don’t generally like meetings. You have to disrupt everybody’s schedule for some underspecified reason, and they’re usually big time wasters. That being said, good communication is essential to a project’s and organization’s success. It’s just that you really need to think out and plan a meeting to make it worth the time. ↩
Sticking to the time allocated for an activity is more within the discipline of time management; I will not cover it here, since it deserves an article on its own. ↩
I learned about this concept, and a few other useful tips and tricks on how to be a better leader, from the Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence course, available for free on Coursera. ↩
Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself an intelligent person - the only thing that matters is to be open to learning new things. And if you don’t like learning, then why are you reading this article 🤔? ↩
For more on this topic I can recommend Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The second habit, “Begin With the End in Mind”, is precisely about how to start with a vision and proceed from there. ↩