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Ten Competencies Every Leader Should Master

There are a few characteristics that all leaders have and others that need to be honed and practiced. Here are the core competencies that really matter.

The characteristics of charismatic, influential leaders have been studied for hundreds of years, and there are thousands of articles out there that will give you the same advice about how to become the best leader you can possibly be: Continuously learn and grow.

While that is excellent advice for anyone (even those who don’t aspire to be leaders), there’s more to developing leadership skills than merely challenging yourself to learn something new and get out of your comfort zone. Here are the 10 core competencies every strong leader needs to develop to succeed in the modern world.

A Strong Sense of Ethics

Despite what you may read about in the news, well-respected leaders have an incredibly strong sense of right and wrong, and to be successful, they must communicate it in everything they say and do.

When you lead any team, your team members look to you to model the behaviors they’ll be expected to replicate and uphold the rules of engagement. Studies have shown that employees model their leaders’ behavior, and if a leader is corrupt in any way, it’s highly likely that those following that leader are also corrupt. Corrupt leaders prey on followers’ psychological needs, like the need for belonging and the need for security. 

As Professor Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering and a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford (as well as the author of one of my favorite books on leadership, Good Boss, Bad Boss), says in his piece over at McKinsey:

“Whether or not [leaders] know it, their followers monitor, magnify, and often mimic their moves…. The ripple effects of this CEO’s style are consistent with findings from peer-reviewed studies showing that senior executives’ actions can reverberate throughout organizations, ultimately undermining or bolstering their cultures and performance levels.” 

If you want your company to do good things in the world, you must model the behavior you want to see. Having a good solid core of ethics and ethical behavior is one sure way to create that. 

Extremely Clear Communication 

Whether you choose to communicate via online meetings, email, or weekly newsletters, clarity is central to being a great boss and leader. If you don’t communicate, your employees and followers cannot succeed.

Clear communication starts with a deep knowledge of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and the communication methods that best suit your style. Trying to communicate via email when you are more of a face-to-face person is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole—something will inevitably get lost in translation. Knowing where your blind spots are around communication is essential, too.

Clear communication provides a strong sense of safety and security for everyone involved. The clearer you can be in your communication, the more secure your team will feel executing your plans, and the better the outcome can be, whether you’re navigating a PR crisis or merely trying to motivate and inspire employees.

Clear communication is the basis for getting any task done, whether it’s large or small. It forms the foundation of connection and inspiration. It is the capstone of how we interact with each other as humans, and it forms the backbone of any healthy organization.

Adaptability

It’s no surprise to anyone that the world is changing at a rapid pace, and companies must keep up to succeed—a significant part of being able to keep up means that leaders must be adaptable.

Adaptability, at its core, is the ability to tap into flexible forms of thinking and problem solving to stay ahead of competitors. Strong leaders continually integrate new information as it becomes available to them. It also means that while staying true to their core ethics and maintaining clear communication lines, great leaders must have the ability to flex their thinking or change their perspective in the face of new information. There is never one right answer; there are many good answers.

Adaptability enables strong leaders to think ahead and see both the forest and the trees when things get tough. Influential leaders can plan ahead and consider scenarios that could change and impact both the company and their employees, which in turn creates confidence in the face of uncertainty. By having a plan in place should something go awry, you offer your company and your employees the sense of control and security they crave when faced with tough moments.

Humility

While it may not make many top-10 leadership trait lists, in my opinion, humility is a crucial competency that leaders must develop to cope with the changing business landscape. As I have written before, humility is at the core of what often inspires people to follow you. 

Being able to ask for help when you need it and admit when you might be wrong are vital to providing an environment for success in business. These traits show that you are human, and in many ways, being vulnerable can make you even more successful as a leader because it inspires other humble people to want to work with you. 

In my book, humility is the key to success. It shows you are a balanced leader who isn’t afraid to give credit where credit is due or ask for help when you need it. Since most employees want to feel seen and acknowledged for their hard work, humility can truly inspire greatness in others and help boost your leadership IQ.

A Commitment to Diversity

Diversity of thought, background, and experience is a vital component of success in today’s business world, yet it takes a certain amount of commitment and attention to foster diversity. As I have discussed before, diversity offers advantages (both seen and unseen) for companies to thrive in an ever-changing business landscape. 

It makes good logical sense that a diverse chorus of voices at the table means that better decisions can be made as more perspectives and more information become available, but a commitment to diversity goes well beyond just that. It involves recruiting and hiring from underrepresented populations that are often overlooked. For example, as CEO of U.S. Money Reserve, I am committed, now more than ever, to bringing our veterans into the folds of corporate America because of the different perspectives they can offer on the business, and their contributions to our company and our country are absolutely invaluable. 

Diversity also helps leaders get out of our comfort zones and our potentially biased blind spots. Having a variety of voices at the table means that we can serve our customers and clients in ways that are creative, different, and perhaps even more valuable than the competition because we can speak directly to their needs, wants, and opinions in a way that resonates more personally.

The Ability to Empower Others

Being a great leader means that you need to be able to let go of many things, including some of your need for control.

Empowering others can be a tricky competency to master, but it is crucial to help others grow, develop, change, and learn through new opportunities. Studies have repeatedly shown that empowered teams are far more capable, adaptable, productive, and proactive when they have the support of a strong leader behind them. 

Yet being an empowering leader doesn’t mean relinquishing the reins completely. In fact, it means knowing your team’s boundaries and trusting that those you have hired can and will exceed your expectations when the chips are down. No leader can ever do everything themselves, so by hiring a diverse workforce and empowering them to make the right choices for the business, you create an environment of inspiration, growth, and change.

Decisiveness

You cannot be a strong leader without having a strong sense of decisiveness. If you waffle on decisions, your employees won’t feel empowered to make their own decisions that could benefit the business. 

There is a constant flow of information that leaders need to parse, understand, and then move on with. It can take a tremendous effort to weigh all the pros and cons and see all the potential paths but being decisive in the face of being overwhelmed is a vital skill to develop to be a successful leader. Decisiveness does not mean that you need to make decisions in a bubble, rather it means that you need to hone your ability to have a good solid plan for how you will go about making decisions.

Decision making is a dance that sometimes includes others but is sometimes done alone. A strong leader has to know when to choose which path. Good decision making can mean reaching out to employees or other partners to help and knowing when it’s time to step back and let others decide or when it’s time to step in and make a decision on the spot. In each situation, a strong leader must develop a solid process for decision making and stick to it. Knowing what your process looks like and being able to communicate that is vital to being a successful leader.

Business Acumen

Business has changed significantly in the last 50 years. It used to be that you began in one industry and spent your entire life in it. Your knowledge became deep and narrow. Today business is different. You don’t necessarily need direct experience in the field in which you lead but having the ability to web-think or make connections to other areas you have expertise in is critical to success.

Strong leaders must keep up with everything going on in their industry and the world to make well-informed decisions. You must have both depth and breadth of knowledge to apply lessons from other sectors to what’s happening in your particular company. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t know your industry and business inside and out but keeping your business knowledge sharp helps keep your eyes open to everything that is going on so you can make the best decisions for your team.

Political and Influential Skills

Part of being a leader means influencing people to act in ways that are in the best interests of your company or employees. It also means being good at playing politics when the need arises. These skills often have negative connotations, but when used for good (and in the hands of a skilled leader), they can be incredibly powerful and help inspire and build great communities, great businesses, and great economies.

An effective leader is an excellent political player and can see both the board and the next move while leveraging those insights to make better decisions for the company. Being an influential leader means being able to wield power in a balanced and fair way and use it to do good for your employees and the company. Honing these skills can be tricky since the stakes are often high, but it pays to pull from your keen sense of ethics to make the best political and influential moves in business.

Conflict Management Skills

No business (or life) exists without conflict, and conflict management skills are among the 10 core competencies that make a leader great. There are going to be times when you’ll need to play referee between two business groups or coworkers. Being able to manage conflict in a healthy and supportive way is critical to success as a leader.

At their core, conflict management skills are really about collaboration and finding common ground—remember that. Being able to see both sides of a conflict and use your decisiveness, influence, political skills, and communication skills to help both parties reach a reasonable resolution is the best way to ensure that everyone is at least somewhat satisfied. Just like conflicts, business is never black and white—and the more you can hone your conflict management skills, the more stable and secure your employees will feel in their work for you.

The Bottom Line: Be a Good Human

Leaders face tons of demands in the modern world, but by focusing on these 10 core competencies, you can be sure that you will succeed in the face of a continually changing business landscape. As leaders and humans, we all have places where we can improve. With some deep reflection, self-awareness, and hard work, you can use these 10 core competencies to improve your performance and become a leader to remember.

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