What it takes to be an effective leader

Money. Power. Prestige.

When faced with an opportunity to lead — whether in the workplace, school or as part of a volunteer organization — the allure of certain advantages can be enough to make anyone lust after leadership.

But being a leader means so much more than a fancy title on your resume, or a raise in pay.

It’s not about cracking the whip, being a dictator or bossing people around. Nor is it about taking all the credit for every small success. To be a true leader, you must inspire those around you to work towards a common goal, and ultimately, achieve success. And that doesn’t mean you get to sit back while everyone around you works hard. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

As someone who has been in a leadership role numerous times — as a manager/editor of a newspaper; as the president of the Graduate Student Association in grad school; as a lead volunteer for philanthropic efforts in my office; etc. — I’ve learned a thing or two over the years about what it takes to be an effective leader.

In no way am I saying that I believe I am the best leader out there; I’m simply sharing a few tidbits that have helped make my leadership skills better. Without the following aspects, I believe it’s nearly impossible to successfully lead a team.

Motivation

Being a leader takes a lot of time and effort on your part. And sometimes, it can be a bit draining. It’s important to always motivate yourself by remembering what inspired you to be a leader in the first place. Perhaps you enjoy helping people, or want to make a difference in your workplace/school. It shouldn’t just be about getting ahead. Sure, promotions are nice — and so is the pay — but it should be about making a difference. Never lose sight of that, because once you stop being motivated yourself, it’s impossible to motivate others.

Hard Work

I’ve learned the hard way that oftentimes, people are more than willing to raise their hand to volunteer to lead, only to later fade into the background because they didn’t think leadership would come with so much work. While I was in graduate school in Boston, part of my goal as the president of the Graduate Student Association was to revive the long-forgotten organization, and make it a fun place where grad students could meet people from other majors.

In my mind, the best way to achieve that goal was to host a series of private, free mixers at different bars around the city. Students could come and help themselves to free food and drinks, while mingling with students they had never met. The events were all closed to the public, so the only people in the bar were students from our graduate programs.

The problem was that these events required A TON of planning — securing the location, managing the budget, creating and distributing flyers, encouraging students to go, buying decorations, selecting the food and drink menu, etc. — and a ton of set-up the day of. It also required someone to sit at the entrance to the bar checking off students’ names (they had to give their student ID number in order to be let in) and slapping a wristband on their arm. And time after time, the person in charge of all these things, was me. The members of our organization would volunteer ahead of time, then show up late the day of or not even show up at all. They had no problem volunteering to be the secretary, the treasurer, or even the vice president, but when push came to shove, they had a problem putting in the work.

The important thing to remember is that when you’re a leader, you’re the one who is responsible for the success, or failure, of everything. If you don’t put in the work, no one is going to do it for you. So be prepared to show up early, stay late, and clean up alone.

Confidence Over Arrogance

Effective leaders must have enough confidence in their skills, even when faced with criticism. And even more importantly, know the difference between being confident, and being arrogant.

When a confident leader is criticized, he/she knows that finding areas of weakness does not make him/her a weak leader. A confident leader knows that there is always room for improvement, and that criticism isn’t necessarily an attack on his/her character. This type of leader takes the criticism as constructive, and does a self-assessment to determine how he/she can improve his/her leadership skills, thus making the team better as a whole.

When an arrogant leader is criticized, he/she feels as if the criticism is an attack that stems from a negative place. This type of leader may wrongfully assume that the team is trying to overthrow him/her from the leadership position. The leader may also refuse to admit any shortcomings whatsoever, thus creating a highly volatile environment for the entire team.

Whenever you’re faced with criticism, ask yourself: “What areas are my weaknesses? Where can I improve?” The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that there is no room for personal growth, simply because you’re in charge.

Communication

Good communication skills are required at every level of business, but especially when you’re in a leadership role. Being a good communicator means keeping everyone in the loop, even when it might seem like overkill. Did something on your project change? Is someone sick and cannot perform their duties? It’s important to update every team member, whenever something affects the project. Of course, no one needs to know that you chose a sesame bagel for breakfast, but they do need to know when a deadline has been moved up.

My advice is to send email memos whenever a change occurs. That email should be extremely clear, and concise. Remember that what may seem completely clear to one person, could easily be misinterpreted my another person, so choose your wording carefully. And ALWAYS write emails in complete sentences and address team members in a professional manner.

Compassion

Last but certainly not least, an effective leader must be compassionate. Don’t be so focused on the end goal that you lose sight of human nature. Remember that anything can happen, and you need to be prepared to let go of your frustration or panic, and understand what someone else is going through.

For instance, a team member may fall ill, someone close to them could die, an accident could occur, an issue with their child may arise, etc. Instead of being angry or stressed that the team member may not be able to fulfill their duties, offer them compassion, understanding and sympathy. Don’t rush them to complete their work, or force them to work from home. Try and give them the space and comfort that they deserve.

Are you a leader? What are your tips for effective leadership? Leave them in the comments!

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