Developing Leadership Skills: How to Become an Effective Leader [+ Expert Tips]

It’s very easy to spot good leadership when it happens.

Take, for instance, how an old manager of mine used to ask my advice on business strategy in our weekly 1:1s — and then provide constructive feedback on it.

While I might not have recognized it at the time, I now see he was teaching me to think about how my role fit into the company’s bigger mission.

Or, consider how my current manager seeks out learning and development opportunities for each of her direct reports. Whenever she finds a workshop or online class that could help me grow, she passes along the information.

All of which is to say: Good leadership doesn’t look, sound, or act just one way. There are a myriad of ways for a good leader to educate and inspire others.

Which means leadership is a harder skill to master than others. It isn’t like mastering Excel, which requires knowledge of specific, fixed formulas. Instead, good leadership is more ambiguous, and mastering it is less of a linear path. There will be setbacks, and moments where you feel you didn’t act as a good leader should. But there will also be incremental moments of true growth.

Whether you’re an individual contributor or already a team lead, there’s always room for improvement. Here, we’ll cover leadership development on various levels — from individual contributor to senior management and above. Plus, hear leadership tips from Google, LinkedIn, Monday.com, and HubSpot.

We’ll also explore how to achieve your career goals through actionable steps you can take to level-up and become a stronger, more effective leader.

Let’s begin.

What is a leader?

Before we dive into how to become a leader, it’s important we cover what a leader is.

At its most basic definition, a leader is someone who leads a group of people towards a common goal through inspiration, motivation, and strong vision setting.

For instance, a teacher leads her students towards the goal of learning and uses motivation and inspiration to help them reach that goal.

The motivation and inspiration aspects are key. A leader isn’t just someone who barks orders and hopes people obey. Instead, an effective leader is highly emotionally intelligent and connects with his or her direct reports to create stronger relationships before driving the group towards change.

Additionally, a good leader is someone who is effective at big-picture strategizing, and equally adept at communicating that vision to the rest of the team.

If you’re still unsure what a leader is, here are a few quotes from leaders who’ve defined the term for themselves:

“As a business leader, I think of myself as a coach. It’s my responsibility to build a strong team, design a winning strategy and execute the strategy with excellence to bring the team to victory.” — Thasunda Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA
“Ensuring that people have everything they need to achieve the missions of an organization. That’s it, all else is footnotes.” — Hans Vestburg, CEO, Verizon Communications
“Leadership is helping believe in a better tomorrow or a better outcome than you have today.”  — Marissa Mayer, Former CEO, Yahoo!
“Leadership is helping people succeed, inspiring and uniting people behind a common purpose and then being accountable.” — Paul Polman, Former CEO, Unilever
“A leader is someone who can think strategically, simplify the strategy so everyone in the organization can understand it and communicate that strategy simply, enthusiastically, and in a caring way.” — Ajay Banga, CEO, MasterCard

Now that we’ve covered a more broad, basic definition, let’s explore some skills, traits, and qualities of good leadership to understand the definition on a more actionable level.

The Skills, Traits, & Qualities of Good Leadership

Good leadership looks different for every leader. Some leaders are quiet and calm; others are rambunctious and extroverted. There isn’t a specific personality that lends itself best to effective leadership. And that’s a good thing — at its core, leadership is about leading people, and people are diverse, so you want your leadership teams to reflect that diversity.

However, there are a few specific skills, traits, and qualities that have been identified as strong indicators of good leadership.

A few high-level leadership skills include:

High emotional intelligence
A growth mindset
Strong communication skills
Reliability
Ability to give and receive feedback
Decisiveness

To learn more about leadership skills (and how to improve them), take a look at What Are Leadership Skills? [+ How To Get Them].

For now, let’s explore which skills are most relevant for various leadership roles.

Leadership as an Individual Contributor

You don’t have to manage a team to be a leader. Instead, many individual contributors are strong leaders who need to develop leadership skills to manage projects or outcomes.

As an individual contributor, it is oftentimes your responsibility to have influence across the organization to drive projects across the finish line. This includes having the confidence to convince stakeholders that what you’re doing matters to the organization, and that you’re the best leader for the job.

Some of the most critical skills of an individual contributor include strong communication skills, time management skills, ability to work autonomously, and ability to collaborate effectively.

Here are a few specific examples of how individual contributors might need to demonstrate leadership skills:

A social media marketer spearheading a new campaign across channels.
A website designer who is in charge of re-designing the new company homepage.
A blogger who notices a gap in an existing editorial strategy and wants to pitch a new topic cluster to leadership.
A product marketer who needs to work with various teams to drive traffic and leads to a new product launch.

All of these employees need strong leadership skills — including the ability to empathize, remain flexible, listen actively to other team’s agendas, and communicate their own vision effectively — and yet, none of them lead a team in a traditional sense.

To develop leadership skills as an individual contributor:

Learn to seek out feedback from the employees with which you work. Once one project is complete, ask them to complete a survey that requests information related to your time management skills, communication skills, or collaboration skills.

Leadership as a Manager

Once you’re a manager, developing leadership skills becomes more a practice of trial-and-error.

To develop or strengthen key leadership skills, you’ll want to request regular feedback from each of your direct reports, as well as your manager, to determine areas for improvement. Ask clear, actionable questions such as, ‘What is one thing you’d like me to start doing? (Specific examples are helpful)’ and ‘What is one thing you’d like me to stop doing? (Specific examples are helpful)’.

Additionally, take the time to reflect on situations to determine how you might shift your behavior moving forward. Good leaders are the first to admit their mistakes.

For instance, if you’re managing an entry-level employee and recognize you didn’t give her enough context or support before suggesting she meet with her first client, you’ll want to reflect and decide how you’ll change moving forward.

Then, in your 1:1, you can tell her: “I apologize for pushing you into a client situation without ensuring you had all the context and information you needed to succeed. Moving forward, I’ve altered our team training schedule to ensure employees have more time to find their footing before meeting with a client.”

Finally, as you move into a manager role, take the time to identify your management style. Understanding your management style can help you uncover inherent strengths (and weaknesses), and expand upon those.

To develop leadership skills as a manager:

Ask your direct reports for candid, honest feedback. Reflect on situations and iterate on your behaviors over time. Finally, identify your management style and be self-aware about your areas for improvement.

Leadership as a Senior Manager and Above

When you become a senior manager, your job shifts significantly — because you’re now leading a team of managers.  

To be effective as a senior manager, you’ll want to ensure you know how to ask the right questions. In skip level meetings, for instance, you might be speaking with employees who feel intimidated and hesitant to point out issues they’re seeing on the ground-level — but their perspective is invaluable for spotting weaknesses within the organization.

Skip level meetings can also help you determine which areas your direct reports might need coaching, as well as patterns of challenges and inefficiencies across the team.

As a senior manager, it’s also your responsibility to identify and nurture future leaders. Seek out opportunities to coach and mentor lower level leaders to ensure your organization is prepped with leaders who can drive positive change.

Finally, a senior leader is someone who motivates and inspires the department at-large with visions of the future of the company — two, five, and even ten years out. She is someone who is able to clearly articulate where she sees the business, and industry, headed, to create a sense of purpose among employees.

To foster this skill as a senior manager, you’ll want to be intentional about staying up-to-date with the competitive landscape and consistently making note of existing customer pain points and how your company might reduce friction and stay relevant in the years to come.

To learn more about this, take a look at How to Set & Achieve Marketing Objectives in 2021.

To develop leadership skills as a senior manager or above:

Practice the art of active listening and asking the right questions to discover weaknesses and gaps in your organization. Keep up-to-date with the competitive landscape. Find mentors or senior manager peers who will provide you with leadership feedback, and attend conferences or seminars to network with other industry leaders.

How to Achieve Your Leadership Career Goals

1. Identify your leadership style, and know your strengths and weaknesses.

Leadership isn’t one-size, fits-all. So when you first decide you want to become a leader, it’s vital you take the time to determine what type of leader you want to be.

If you’ve never been in a leadership position before, you can start by taking a leadership style assessment to determine your style.

Alternatively, if you have been a leader in a previous position (even informally), take a look at The 8 Most Common Leadership Styles & How to Find Your Own [Quiz] to see which style you feel you fit most accurately.

For instance, let’s say you’ve determined you fit a ‘Coach-Style Leadership’ style. Coach-Style leaders are focused on identifying and nurturing individual strengths of each team member.

Since Coach-Style leaders focus on growth and success of individual employees, it’s vital you’re efficient at communication and relationship-building.

Alternatively, if you felt better suited for a ‘Strategic Leadership’ style, you’d want to hone skills related to strategic, big-picture thinking.

Once you’ve figured out your leadership style, it becomes easier to identify areas for improvement and areas of potential weakness.

To create a more comprehensive list, take the time to make a list of your strengths and weaknesses (and collect external feedback as well) — this can help you determine, with your manager, which areas of growth will be most necessary before you can earn a leadership position.

2. Seek out opportunities to become a role model or mentor.

To become a leader, you’ll need to vocalize to your manager that you want to become one. Then, he or she can help you identify opportunities to begin practicing leadership informally.

Alternatively, try seeking out those opportunities for yourself. There are a myriad of ways to test out your leadership skills. Perhaps you sign up to become a mentor to a new employee, or grab coffee once a week with a new team member to provide guidance and support.

Outside of work, you can look for areas in your community to become a leader. For instance, you could volunteer as a mentor for a local high school.

3. Develop your communication skills.

A core tenant of strong leadership is good communication skills.

Leadership requires you to communicate constantly with various stakeholders, effectively sell them on your goals or vision, and create rapport to build trust among your team.

In a given day, a leader might go from a meeting with executives in which she needs to communicate the resourcing needs of her team, to a meeting with individual contributors where she needs to build trust, inspire, and motivate.

 All of which is to say: Good leadership and strong communication skills go hand-in-hand.

To develop stronger communication skills, you’ll want to start by practicing your active listening skills, learning how to assert your opinion in a helpful way, and asking for feedback from others on your existing communication skills. You might also seek out public speaking opportunities to strengthen your public speaking skills.

Empathy and emotional intelligence are equally critical to communicating effectively, and can help you build stronger relationships with colleagues.

For instance, let’s say a colleague comes to you with a problem. She expresses that she’s been overwhelmed and, as a result, won’t be able to meet the deadline you’d initially agreed upon for a project.

While you might be frustrated or even angry initially, empathy can enable you to put yourself in her shoes, and understand that missing deadlines can happen to all of us. Additionally, emotional intelligence can help you monitor your own emotions and react appropriately.

As a result of having empathy and high emotional intelligence, you might respond like this: “Thanks for letting me know, and I’m sorry to hear you’ve been feeling overwhelmed. We’ve all been there. Give me some time to think over how we can come up with a solution to ensure we don’t get behind on the project as a whole.”

Rather than reacting purely based on personal feelings, emotional intelligence ensures you have the skills to keep your emotions in-check and respond to situations in positive, effective ways.

4. Ask big picture questions and learn to think about strategy.

When asked, “What skills are vital to being a good leader?”, over ⅓ of HubSpot survey respondents reported ‘ability to think strategically and to think about the big picture’. That skill alone won out over communication skills, decision-making skills, and interpersonal skills.

Thinking strategically doesn’t happen overnight. When you’re in a role that requires you to be focused on ground level details, it can be difficult to suddenly pull back and analyze bigger trends, challenges, and solutions — but it’s vital for any leader to be able to do so.

Here are a few ways you can begin exercising that ‘strategic thinking’ muscle:

Ask more big picture questions in meetings, even if it’s not directly tied to your role. For instance, if you’re a social media marketer and you’re required to post Instagram stories for an upcoming product launch, you might explore questions such as, ‘Why did our executive team choose to focus on investing in development for this product in particular?’ ‘How will this product expand our value proposition?’ and ‘What narrative are we telling around this product and how it fits into our existing product stack?’
Expand your network outside of your immediate team. Grab lunches with members of the sales or services organization, and take the time to speak with those outside of your team. This will help you begin to understand what’s happening in other areas of the organization, what other teams are working on, and challenges other teams are facing.
Get organized with how you spend your time. While your day-to-day tasks are important, it’s equally vital you carve out intentional time to focus on bigger projects or professional development opportunities. To do this, you might block off one hour every other week to focus on personal brainstorming — during this time, you might write down a list of higher-visibility projects you’ve been wanting to test out, or seek out workshops and courses in your area that will help you develop skills that your team currently lacks.
Be willing to speak up. Beyond asking question in meetings, practice feeling comfortable sharing your own perspective or opinion. Show your colleagues you’re willing to communicate new ideas or get creative when it comes to existing strategies.

Research Credit: Lucid

5. Take on more responsibility.

To begin levelling up in your career, you’ll need to seek out additional opportunities to expand your skillset and demonstrate your willingness to grow professionally.

The easiest way to do this is to have an honest conversation with your manager in which you ask where the team’s needs are, and how you can help your team meet those needs. Alternatively, perhaps you’ve observed a weak spot on your team and you feel confident you know how to fix it — in that case, you might bring your proposal to your manager.

It’s vital you have buy-in from your manager since taking on more responsibility outside of your existing role could look unprofessional if your manager doesn’t know why you’re adding tasks to your plate.

If you’re interested in becoming a team manager, for instance, you might tell your manager: “I noticed we’re hiring a summer intern. If we don’t already have a plan in-place, I’m wondering if I could become the intern’s mentor or manager for the summer to strengthen some of my leadership skills?”

6. Go where the needs are.

I received this advice early in my career after I’d pitched a lengthy project to my manager. The pitch was strong — except my solution didn’t solve a big problem, it solved a small one.

My manager said, “It looks like you created this pitch with your own personal interests top-of-mind. While it’s always great if your passions can match business need, first and foremost, you need to work from the perspective of, ‘What will help our business the most?‘”

She had a point. After some reflection, I realized our team didn’t need infographics designed for blog posts as much as the team needed more SEO knowledge and input. Rather than looking for design courses, I pivoted and signed up for a workshop on SEO. It was less interesting (personally), but it impacted our business on a broader scale.

Effective leaders don’t just suggest random ideas when it suits them. Instead, they start by asking the right questions and analyzing existing weak spots. Then, they work to fill in those gaps and create real change for their organizations.

7. Practice self-awareness.

Self-awareness is an incredibly vital skill for any leader.

For instance, leaders who can see how their employees view them are usually more effective, and have stronger relationships with their employees. Additionally, self-awareness can help you correctly identify what you do well, and which areas you can potentially improve.

But if you think you’re already a master in self-awareness, think again. One study estimates only 10-15% of people are truly self-aware. And, even if you are self-aware, there is always opportunities to strengthen the skill.

In this context of developing leadership skills, self-awareness can help you:

Assess your current relationships with your colleagues, and how you might improve it. (Example: You recognize you were dismissive of another colleague’s ideas in a recent meeting, and she’s been avoiding you since. With that self-awareness, you can apologize for your behavior and practice more open-mindedness moving forward.)
Analyze your own internal thought patterns, and recognize which ones aren’t serving you, to build confidence. (Example: You feel imposter syndrome every time you present to your team, and you’re self-aware enough to know it’s because you’re constantly thinking, ‘I don’t deserve to be here’. As a result, you work on self-affirmation, and create a folder on your desktop of positive reinforcements from colleagues.)
Figure out which skills you lack that you’ll need to develop before moving into a leadership role. (Example: After some reflection, you realize you aren’t often honest about your mistakes, which can make you seem untrustworthy. As a result, you put effort into admitting when you’ve failed to your manager or team.)