Leadership secrets: inner work is the key to developing leadership skills

Stepping up to a leadership role means entering a fast-paced, rapidly-changing working environment, full of new opportunities and new challenges. While immensely rewarding, the position brings with it the weight of responsibility. Great leaders need to be prepared for every possibility that the role may throw at them. They must be inspirational, great communicators, highly organised and skilled managers, all while remaining true to themselves.

Leadership itself is not always something that comes naturally, especially for those who don’t fit the mould of how society dictates a leader should be. It takes time and hard work to develop the necessary skills, and with determination and self-belief, leadership is a path open to all, regardless of gender, background, or how you imagine society might perceive you.

Becoming a great leader - Diezani Alison-Madueke

Obstacles and hardships

Taking on additional responsibility and shouldering a bigger burden for a team, department or company can be a daunting task—but decision-making is a critical part of any leadership role, and big calls are made on a daily basis. Leaders are likely to face criticism, backlash, and conflict, not to mention the disappointment of failure when things don’t go according to plan. What makes a strong leader is the way they respond to this pressure. Remaining calm, analytical, and level-headed in the face of this stressful environment is of critical importance.

Perhaps a somewhat unexpected challenge when stepping up to a leadership role is the amount of time and work dedicated to the development of others and managing team concerns. While many may consider this the foundation of what makes leadership so rewarding, for others it can be a steep learning curve.

All too often, potentially great leaders fail – not because of these external challenges but because of internal ones. Leaders are people, each with their own personality traits. Some may be resistant to change, impatient or be perceived as having a lack of authenticity. Low self confidence can lead to a fear of failure, a desire to be liked, or so-called ‘imposter syndrome’. These internal struggles, when compounded with the many hardships they are likely to have to face alone, can make it a lonely place at times.

Leadership Development

As we prepare to face these challenges we must consider: what is the key to good leadership? There is no one great secret to being a leader, however there are some fundamental skills that all good leaders share, and some key practices which are advisable to develop.

Great leaders are inspirational: they inspire their team to perform better and motivate them with their vision. However, they must also be great communicators; as without communication skills, a leader will be unable to share that vision. Of course this includes both oral and written skills: a huge amount of time is spent communicating by email, where poor writing can lead to confusion and low productivity. Conveying information effectively at the first attempt will save potential time and stress further down the line. Communication also means listening: a team that feels listened to and valued will be willing to go the extra mile.

It may seem obvious, but leaders also need to be organised; from being proactive in establishing goals, timelines and deadlines to creating smooth processes for reporting and information sharing. They should know how to delegate. Emotional intelligence is important for forming strong interpersonal relationships with team members, developing conflict management skills, and learning how to give constructive feedback, which inspires trust and engagement.

The inner work

Frequently overlooked when discussing leadership is the necessity to continue development on oneself. Regardless of which skills a leader learns or which qualities they seek to enhance, the most vital element  is the inner work of reflection and self progression.

First, by recognising one’s own characteristics, habits and behaviours, one can understand  particular challenges and know which to focus on. Simultaneously, knowing yourself well, helps to inform the type of leader you will become. Indeed, while there are a multitude of types of leader, authenticity is a vital constant to ensure the team’s respect and trust. Remain true to your values and beliefs, and don’t change who you are to fit into how society says a leader should look, act or sound. The most important thing you bring to the job is you.

It’s a truism that if you want other people to believe in you, you must  first believe in yourself; to be a successful leader, you first have to see yourself as one. Your team is looking to you for inspiration and motivation, as well as instruction. You will only become that transformational, empowering presence that you want to be by nurturing belief and confidence in yourself.

Becoming a leader: Final advice for a rewarding challenge

Taking on leadership of a team of any size is challenging and there are times when every leader feels overwhelmed, or unequal to the position. Opportunities for coaching or mentoring may be beneficial to a lot of aspiring leaders but it’s important to remember that being one’s own authentic self is a leader’s best quality.

Passion for the work itself can achieve focus and help to overcome hardships, yet it’s important to avoid neglecting your work-life balance. To remain motivated and avoid burnout, it’s essential to practise self-care; taking time away from work and allowing space for personal and professional life to grow in harmony. If life becomes all about work, emotional exhaustion is likely to catch up, making everything seem harder than it is.

Too much leadership advice boils down to ‘fake it until you make it’. There is, of course, truth in the fact that at some point an aspiring leader will simply have to jump in, and accept that some mistakes will be made as part of the learning process. Fundamentally, the best (and only) way to learn how to lead is to actually do it. However, this cliché tends to erase the genuine, vital inner work that an aspiring leader can undertake to give themselves the best chance of success. Learning to be a leader can help a person grow and to learn about themselves as a person–and  those skills developed will prove just as useful in one’s personal life as in the professional sphere.  

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