Qualities of good team leaders
Just the word leader is enough to conjure images of success: leaders like New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, civil rights movement leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Tesla Motors founder, Elon Musk. Not only do they lead effectively in extremely challenging circumstances, but they are (mostly) universally appreciated.
What did they do on their journey through life to become great leaders?
Of course, not every leader is successful – we can all think of a manager who exhibited traits of negative leadership. But is knowing the difference between qualities of a good leader and bad leadership enough to ensure we become successful leaders? To lead requires a broad range of skills – the good news is that leadership qualities can all be learned. This article highlights those skills you might already have, alongside some shortcomings that you can address on your way to successful leadership.
1. Leadership is not all about you
The principal role of a leader is to enable and empower a team to achieve both collective and individual goals. It can involve delegation, instruction and training, but at the heart of it all is a desire to serve. Effective leaders align with Servant Leadership principles that focus on developing teams. These principles span from in-depth personal development programs to the simplicity of understanding how your team members like to be rewarded. Servant Leadership is less about handing over authority and more about empowering others to succeed.
Dr Andrea North-Samardzic is the Course Director of Deakin University’s Master of Leadership. While she recommends the qualities of Servant Leadership, Dr North-Samardzic warns against locking yourself into any one style of leadership.
Being able to be flexible and adaptive is increasingly needed rather than simply putting a badge on yourself because sometimes you need to be a manager more than a leader.
“A good leader is a person who knows when to turn it on and when to turn it off,” declares Dr North-Samardzic.
If you are embracing your servant leader side, it’s essential to seek feedback from your team. Honest feedback can be a frightening process – many leaders don’t ask because they don’t want to know the answer! But it’s the issues raised when asking for feedback from the team that provides a roadmap for successful leadership. Resolve these issues, and you will have more engaged staff who feel that their contribution is valued.
2. Honesty, Integrity and Humility
Integrity and honesty are critical characteristics of a good leader, and both appear to be critically lacking. In a US survey, half of all employees reported that their bosses are liars who take credit for anything good that happens. These leaders didn’t give credit where it was due, failed in keeping promises, and blamed others as a way to cover up their mistakes. As a result, workers weren’t satisfied with their jobs, were less likely to take on additional tasks and more likely to leave.
Would you consider a sports referee to be a leader? They have authority, they help teams achieve an outcome (whether it’s a positive or negative outcome depends on which team you support!), and they are nothing without integrity and honesty. Referees and umpires are also experts in humility – the quality of being humble. NRL referees have adopted core values and behaviours that include identifying strengths and weaknesses, working towards self-improvement and acknowledging that no individual is more important than the group.
While referees display many qualities of a leader, they lack two key elements of positive leadership – compassion and empathy. Referees need to make cold hard decisions and can’t afford to take into account the personal feelings of players. A successful team leader, on the other hand, can achieve better outcomes by approaching conflict with compassion and empathy. Compassion is defined as the motivation to help others with their physical, mental or emotional pains, while empathy is the ability to recognise the emotions of another.
In short, if you are aware of how someone in your team is feeling, and you use that awareness to help them, you are leading with compassion and empathy. It’s been shown that even if you experience a passing feeling of empathy for a team member, that can be enough to break your focus on our own emotions. Use this moment to focus your attention on that team-member and help them achieve a shared goal.
3. Hold your team (and yourself) accountable
Away from the sports field, coaching is a critical skill in leadership that gives you the ability to hold your team (and yourself) accountable without shaming anybody. Using methods like the GROW model you can work with an individual or a team to give them ownership of a goal while making sure you’re all aware of the current realities and obstacles. However, the most important step is to look at the way forward where you must ask the person you’re coaching – how committed are you? Knowing that answer in advance will make accountability easier to achieve.
Dr Andrea North-Samardzic points out that, in addition to their team, successful leaders also hold themselves accountable as a key leadership quality.
“For effective leadership, you have to engage in self-reflection. If you can self-diagnose what your weaknesses are, what your challenges are before someone else tells you then you're in an amazing position.”
According to Dr North-Samardzic, the need for self-reflection in Australian corporate leadership has been revealed during the parliamentary review of the four major banks.
"The CEO of NAB said that banking shifted away from a customer focus twenty years ago. How could you not see problems developing over two decades? With the Master of Leadership, we're forcing you to be self-reflective, so you'll be able to see those problems coming a mile off.”
4. Good leaders make a decisive commitment to a vision
A commitment to a vision drives all great leaders. It’s more than a goal, and it’s different from a corporate mission statement. Positive change often comes from a leader articulating a vision of abundance – with an upbeat future, successful outcomes and a legacy that people care about. But before leaders can inspire others with their vision, they must develop it, define it and be committed to it. It becomes the touchstone against which all decisions and actions are defined.
To be a confident, effective leader, you must be a capable decision maker. This doesn’t simply mean you can make a decision – you need to be proficient. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was criticised for his captain’s picks, most notably his decision to re-introduce Dames and Knights by knighting Prince Phillip. A capable decision maker uses a decision-making process that considers the expectations of key stakeholders. They make rational choices that fairly evaluate the probability of good or bad outcomes.
5. Know thy self and believe in thy self
As one of the first behavioural scientists, Erich Fromm declared in 1939, “Hatred against oneself is inseparable from hatred against others.” Daniel Goleman backed this up in 1998 with his research into emotional intelligence which found that our knowledge about ourselves is essential to improving our management skills. Only when we accept the strengths and weaknesses in ourselves can we genuinely accept the same in our team. The challenge is to be brave enough to embark on a journey of self-knowledge.
Self-Confidence is a personality trait that is essential in leadership, and it comes from many sources. Education, previous experience and position authority can all lead to increased self-confidence. They can also lead to excessive self-confidence which may result in arrogant, autocratic and intolerant leadership. Confidence built through skill development helps to avoid these issues. When combined with self-knowledge, skill development can address gaps in knowledge to increase self-confidence in a measured way that results in more effective leadership.
6. Successful team leaders speak well and listen better
Warren Buffet regularly tells MBA students that their degree will give them an edge, but it’s public speaking skills that will put them ahead of their competitors. To be an effective leader, you must be an articulate speaker – an ability which few are born with, but everybody can learn. Always prepare what you are going to say, whether your audience is 1000, or just one. It also helps to be a keen listener. Great leaders can make you feel like the most important person in the room because they are present in the moment and they go beyond listening to really hear you.
Seeking and listening to feedback from the team is a powerful way to cultivate self-esteem in yourself and the team. Some experts see self-esteem as an individual’s self-rating of their social inclusion. By listening you can cultivate self-esteem in your team, leading to greater resilience in your team members. While this outcome can boost your self-esteem as a leader, it’s also important to take care of yourself and seek feedback from mentors and individuals you trust outside of your team.
7. Achieve goals in good time
Effective leaders are goal-driven with strong time management abilities. They usually weave the two together into one harmonious process that is a marvel to observe. Never do they pause to think through the meanings of each letter in a SMART goal, because every goal they set is specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time-framed. If you’re regularly surprised by reminders from your calendar, it might be time to review your relationship to time management.
In management, it can be a constant challenge to keep the big picture in mind while focusing on priorities. The tools that we use to help us focus can sometimes be the greatest distraction. Many get so caught up in the measures of Balanced Score Cards and other goal setting systems that they lose sight of their destination. Leaders must be disciplined about focus and priorities to enable their teams, and themselves to achieve their goals.
8. Successful leaders master stress management
Has anything good ever come from the question “Can I see you in my office for a moment?”. This sentence can bring about the fight/flight mechanism in your chosen team member, which most of us know of, but few understand. Polyvagal Theory (also see video) explains the three elements of our nervous system, or stress management system, known as fight, flight or shutdown. Think of a gazelle who encounters a lioness. Fight is not an option, so it leaps into flight. Unfortunately, the lioness catches it, and as the lioness’s teeth close around the gazelle’s neck, it goes limp – shutdown. If the lioness gets distracted, the flight response kicks back in, the gazelle comes back to life and is off again. With an understanding of stress management, you’ll be able to recognise situations that invoke the fight/flight mechanism in your team. With this knowledge, you can take preventative action, arrange training or adjust workflows for improved stress management.
Many leaders talk about their daily meditation routine which they kicked off after a health scare for their stress management. It’s not uncommon for leaders to put work as their priority, then maybe family and friends in the second position, while care for themselves ranks third – or even lower. To be successful, leaders must take time for self-care and personal wellbeing. It is possible to do this before your mental or physical health suffers. The best part about self-care is that it usually makes you more pleasant to be around as well, so your team will thank you in more ways than one.
Closely linked to self-care is the importance of support from your community. It can be lonely when you’re the decision maker, motivator and goal setter. Support may be available within your organisation from other managers or senior leaders – if it isn’t, consider establishing your board of advisors. From former colleagues, classmates and lecturers you can create a community of support that’s just a phone call away. If these people aren’t available to you, consider a professional mentor or business coach.
9. Avoid dysfunctions and reward excellence
An essential characteristic of a successful team leader is an understanding of ‘The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team’. Patrick Lencioni identified these qualities which can often be found in individuals but can also affect an entire team. One of the most challenging is ‘Fear of Conflict’ which leaves issues unaddressed to fester, or even worse to damage business performance and put individuals at risk. Successful leaders can identify any of the five dysfunctions early on, so they can take action to improve the performance of their team.
If a team member displays excellence and nobody notices, is it likely to be repeated? Wise leaders know how to nurture excellence. They reward the right behaviour, and they call out the wrong behaviour – consistency is the key. You must also be capable of seeing the best in people, which isn’t always easy – not because they are necessarily bad – but because of the high demands placed on leaders on a daily basis. It takes almost every other quality listed here, working in combination, to ensure you can see the best in people and nurture excellence.
10. Good leaders are lifelong learners
Many organisations have embraced Total Quality Management and other continuous improvement programs – particularly legacy brands that don’t want to be disrupted. They’ve learned from seeing successful companies like Kodak lose out to digital photography, and Nokia usurped by the smartphone. Leaders can adopt this continuous improvement thinking by becoming a lifelong learner. Top CEOs like Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and Bill Gates have reading lists that are studied by people who hope to follow in their footsteps. University degrees can be completed online, in your own time, to keep your knowledge up-to-date and focus on the areas you need to improve.
To be a successful team leader takes a lot more than promotion and a bit of charm. Leadership qualities encompass a broad range of skills which few of us have inherently, but all of us can learn. Deakin University’s Masters in Leadership enables you to fill those skill gaps while recognizing the skills you have already gained in your work experience.
Dr North-Samarzic says it’s also a great way to network and start building your personal advisory board and community of support.
“The fact that you're working with people who are in similar stages in their career, perhaps encountering the same leadership problems or concerns – it makes the peer learning environment really valuable,” adds Dr North-Samardzic.
The Masters in Leadership at Deakin is a 100% online course that lets you study at a time and place that suits you, while you continue your career.