When you’re leading a business, you want to be viewed as extremely competent, fair, and as someone who demonstrates effective leadership skills.
But did you know that research has found that less than 50% of employees trust those in leadership roles? Not a great track record, overall.
Being an effective leader is no easy task, and sometimes, even the qualifiers for that “effective team leader” title feel a bit elusive.
Leaders--especially new ones--find themselves wondering, “What actually makes my team see me as a leader they can trust, respect, and take direction from?”
In this guide, we’ll look at some of the data, research, and findings that help add clarity to the defining characteristics of effective leaders.
Psychologists Say Effective Leaders Share These 6 Key Traits
Jeremy Dean, a psychologist that specializes in leadership research, found that by pulling together psychological research and studies on the leaders of successful Fortune 1000 companies, there are six common personality traits shared by the most effective leaders.
- Decisiveness: They can make tough decisions and lead the organization with certainty
- Competence: They focus and direct team members to prioritized tasks
- Integrity: They earn the trust and respect of team members through their actions
- Vision: They anticipate change and think about the future
- Modesty: They respect their peers and maintain a quiet confidence
- Persistence: They are devoted to tasks and maintain follow through
But there’s more.
Additional psychological research from Amyes & Flynn indicates that effective leaders also know how to strike a balance between assertiveness and friendliness with team members. By maintaining a mid-level assertiveness, leaders maximize social relationships to produce important outcomes, and, in turn, were not seen as either impotent or socially insufferable.
It’s not surprising that these traits line up with some of the common elements of classic rhetoric, either. A leader’s ability to express logos, pathos, ethos, and praxis means they communicate with teams in a way that covers all the bases for building trust and respect with those they interact with.
The bottom line: The best team leaders keep a focus on cultivating these core qualities--and maintain a balance between warmth and distance with team members for highly effective leadership.
Research Shows Effective Leadership Comes From Four Common Behaviors
Beyond mere personality traits, effective leadership is commonly defined by a certain set of behaviors.
Great leaders exhibit these actions and have that “special something” that inspires their team members to get on board, to be more productive, and to actually achieve results.
So what are they?
Research from McKinsey indicates that high-quality leadership displays four key behaviors and qualities.
When they surveyed more than 189,000 people in 81 diverse companies around the globe, these four leadership skills stood out from the list of 20 provided--and explained 89% of the variance between strong and weak organizations in regard to leadership effectiveness.
Let’s look at these four behaviors in greater depth and why they’re helpful to those in a leadership capacity.
- Being results-oriented. Keeping a strong focus on objectives helps leaders emphasize the importance of prioritized, high-value work that’s produced efficiently. This quality also helps monitor team follow-through with clear benchmarks for progress tracking.
- Problem-solving. Teams look to their leader for decisiveness--and they want someone who can carefully analyze and consider information before making a final call. From internal disputes to decisions that guide the business, strong problem-solving skills seem to set great leaders apart.
- Valuing (and seeking) different perspectives. Avoiding bias and keeping an open mind helps effective leaders make more sound decisions--and it is a quality that creates an open culture of sharing and collaboration among the organization, too.
- Supporting others. Authenticity and empathy is a leadership quality that helps foster trust and rapport with employees. Beyond this, it helps the leader step into uncomfortable situations without fear of creating conflict.
The bottom line: New leaders who exhibit these habits are able to quickly and effectively earn buy-in from their team members.
Respected Leaders Recognize Their Team Members
We’ve covered characteristics and behaviors of effective leaders--but what about actions? What are some of the daily practices of leaders who are trusted and respected by team members?
Well, for one thing: They place a certain importance on regularly recognizing a job well done. Employee recognition not only makes team members feel appreciated, but it’s a powerful motivator, too.
Take a look at some of the research on this:
- Companies with strategic recognition reported a mean employee turnover rate that is 23.4% lower than retention at companies without any recognition program.
- Praise and commendation from managers was rated the top motivator for performance, beating out other non-cash and financial incentives, by a majority of workers (67%).
It’s surprising, but true: Recognition and praise from leadership can be more effective than financial incentives. Simply taking a moment to commend a job well done in a one-on-one or group setting can have a profound impact on leadership objectives (such as lowering employee churn rates, motivating employees, etc.)
The bottom line: Regularly recognizing those who excel at work is a simple, yet powerful way to build rapport and increase effectiveness as a leader.
Effective Leaders Ask Themselves Tough Questions
We understand a few of the external qualities and activities that set great leaders apart--but what’s different about the internal mind of a highly effective leader?
Roselinde Torres, a leadership expert, has found that from 25+ years of research and experience, the most effective leaders ask themselves three questions--and they address them each carefully.
She outlines these three questions in her TED Talk on the topic:
- Where are you looking to anticipate change?
Rather than sticking with the traditional approach and keeping their heads down, effective leaders take a proactive approach to change rather than being simply reactive. They look ahead to anticipate obstacles and, as a result, invest their time in activities that are truly leadership-oriented.
- What is the diversity measure of your network?
Strong leaders also have relationships with a diverse network of people and understand that having connections with a richly diverse group of stakeholders means they can better identify patterns, come up with solutions, and see beyond their “bubble.”
- Are you courageous enough to abandon the past?
Those with effective leadership skills also are courageous enough to abandon a common successful strategy in order to try new things that are beyond the organization’s comfort zone. This willingness to take risks allows them to think and act on a larger scale, and can help lead the company to new heights.
The bottom line: Torres has traveled the world studying effective leaders--and she explains in her talk that these three questions were always centrally addressed by the best, most effective leaders.
Effective Leaders are Continually Learning
Speaking of being willing to break out of comfortable patterns--let’s talk about ongoing education for leaders.
Data from McKinsey shows that leadership development was the number one human capital priority for US-based companies, and that these companies spend $14B+ annually on these types of courses. Other data echoed this: 83% of companies reported that they feel it’s important for leaders to receive some sort of training.
But what’s surprising is that it’s only leaders who dedicate themselves to continual strategic learning, training, and professional development that reap real benefits.
What does this strategic approach include?
- Developing a small number of core competencies. McKinsey’s survey found that many leaders struggled to be effective when their education was too broad and no specific skills were developed through ongoing training.
- Tying training to real work experiences. Because retention rates for classroom training usually hovers around 10%, effective leaders have found that training becomes more relevant and applicable when paired to real business tasks and objectives.
- Being willing to change behavior based on what is learned. When leaders are willing to take what they’ve learned and can stretch themselves to actually apply that knowledge (even though it may be uncomfortable), the value of the education vastly increases.
- Tracking progress and results of learning. Measuring the tangible outcomes of education is difficult, but those who monitor the results of training efforts and can identify positive trends (like costs savings, reduction of employee turnover, etc.) are able to better understand and see value in their professional development efforts.
The bottom line: Rather than taking leadership courses aimed at broad goals, effective leaders focus their training to highly specific competencies and actively apply their knowledge to real-life situations.
You Don’t Have to Be Extroverted to Exemplify Effective Leadership
Next, let’s break down a common stereotype. Think only outgoing, dominant personalities make for effective new leaders?
Research from Wharton School of Business challenged this assumption back in 2010, and found that in some organizations, introverted leaders were actually more effective than extroverts.
Why? Because different teams thrive under different personality types.
The research team proved this to be true after conducted a t-shirt experiment in which participants had to fold as many t-shirts as possible in 10 minutes. Leaders were assigned to lead in either an introverted or extroverted manner.
What they found: For teams who acted in a passive manner, the extraverted leader was more effective. However, for teams that worked proactively, the introverted leader produced better results.
“When the participants were proactive, they perceived the more extroverted leaders as less receptive to ideas, and they invested less effort in the task,” the researchers explained.
Wharton management professor Adam Grant said, “This data shows that introverted and extroverted leadership styles can be equally effective, but with different groups of employees.”
Grant spoke in depth on these findings at the Wharton Leadership Conference:
The bottom line: Depending on the traits of your team, acting as the Alpha isn’t always required. New leaders should first study the needs of their employees and then adopt a leadership approach that’s based on the style that will produce the best possible outcomes.
Real Insights on Effective Leadership
Let’s wrap things up with some closing thoughts from a few experienced CEOs on how they define effective leadership. They’ve learned first-hand, and have some interesting perspectives on what it means to truly be an effective team leader.
Seth Godin, author and founder of Squidoo and Yoyodyne, said in one of his courses,
“Effective leadership is not management. It is the practice of getting people to do what you want. Leadership happens when somebody assumes the responsibility of making a difference.”
Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, said,
“For me, effective leadership has pivoted on defining two things: 1) What was so important I'd be willing to sacrifice to achieve, and 2) Living it, saying it, sacrificing for it, and expecting the same from others.”
Renee Warren, CEO of Onboardly, said,
“Effective leadership all comes down to three things: Knowing your people and what drives them, having a solid process, and having a clear vision that you share with the team every-single-day. A great leader is empathetic and compassionate, and has a strong moral compass. What I have learned from being a leader is that a great leader needs to show up every day and bring a sense of purpose to the company. They need to motivate, discipline and encourage their people to be a better version of themselves. It's a tough job, but when a leader gets it right, it can really move a company forward--fast.”
What’s the common theme here? Understanding people, striving to motivate them, and truly acting as a leader--as difficult as that may be some days.
Is it always painless and easy? Absolutely not. But when executed well, companies can flourish--and employees enjoy coming to work.
Remember: Effective leadership is only possible when you’re willing be open--open to others, open to learning, and open to change. Stay fluid in your ability to adapt and change perspective, and you’ll maintain the trust and respect of your team.