Over a period of almost 30 years of working and researching leadership and teams I meet a lot of so-called, “team leaders”. Many of these are what I would call leaders of true, high-performing teams – but so many others hold the title as a figurehead without any real impact over the team they lead and performance targets they are aiming to reach.
To be truly successful, most teams will still need the guidance and direction of a true leader, but many are not reaching their potential due to the leader not being equipped with the necessary skills and attributes applied in the right manner to ensure the overall team success.
So, what core skills help me identify those true leaders from the others? And what skills, when learnt, can assist others to start having a real impact as a leader? Below I have created a list of requirements that I consider to be most beneficial for today’s team leader.
1. Communicator – Orator
Effective team leaders must have a broad span of communication skills, from being impactful, motivational, and inspiring, through to being empathic, amiable, and consolatory. Also, must be able to articulate clearly the team’s purpose (why it exists) and the real work of the team. Without this clarity and understanding, team members can easily lose focus or be confused on delivering outcomes, become less motivated or engaged in team activities, and even lose direction all together. Team members also need clear direction to planned work and when tasks are assigned. They need effective feedback to improve performance and to know what is working well, and they need workplace coaching to effectively develop and grow. Leaders also need to have robust debates, difficult conversations, and be able to prosecute or advocate ideas. On top of all that, first and foremost they must be good listeners.
Being able to communicate to the team is one of the greatest strengths a leader can possess, and for team leaders this is a priority and an area where they should seek professional coaching and guidance. You cannot lead if you cannot communicate.
2. Emotional Intelligence (EI).
Emotional intelligence, (and its sub-sets of Social Intelligence and Influencing skills), is the ability to understand and manage ourselves and others by understand our personal emotions (feelings) and that of others, in different often difficult or challenging situations. Understanding our feelings and how these affect our thinking allows for better leadership outcomes.
For team leaders, being able to manage and control yourself to be ‘best self’, no matter the circumstance will allow a calm and considered approach. Teams need this to flourish and deliver, and there is nothing worse than having a leader that is out of control.
To build your personal EI involves developing a high level of self-awareness and understanding personal behaviour. Then motivating and managing self to allow “best self” to lead the team, no matter what. Learning to regulate and control personal behaviour (particularly emotional outbursts) and learning to express feelings appropriately, is critical for team members. Once leaders have mastered self-control then we can move to the social aspect of EI, what we call “Social Intelligence” or managing others.
Social Intelligence (SI)
Building on emotional intelligence, social intelligence is understanding others and being able to “read” team member’s nonverbal cues, especially emotional cues, and then having the skills to manage team member’s behaviour effectively. It often involves the softer interpersonal skills that are relationship oriented. Managing relationships is probably the most critical aspect for team performance and SI is one of the best predictors of effective team leadership. Unfortunately, it is poorly understood and mostly under-developed in team leaders.
Team leaders can improve their personal SI by experiencing different people and personalities in different situations and working to develop their social awareness. Being an active listener, work on conversational skills (such as storytelling), and develop trusting relationships with team members will enhance team leadership and deliver better performance.
Beyond EI and SI, team leadership is about influencing others through and through, so a great leader is an expert of social influence, and able to exert authority effectively and fairly. Tapping into your interpersonal (“soft”) skills can make you much more influential in a team leadership role. To be a good influencer, one of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits was, “seek first to understand before being understood”. Listen first and then debate or negotiate an outcome focusing on a win-win result. Being persuasive
By this I don’t necessarily mean technical competence, but this always helps, but more so competence as a leader in some basic team functions of decision-making, conflict management, and relationship building.
There are alternate ways to make decisions, and a good team leader understands when to make a decision, when to consult team members and bring them into the decision-making process, and when it’s time to step back and let others decide. The ability to facilitate good decision-making process is a core team leader competency. Regular process reviews and reflections can help hone these skills.
Tuckman had storming as a key team phase on the path to performance. This interpersonal skill involves helping team members avoid or resolve interpersonal differences. However, there is another aspect to team conflict, whereby high performing teams embrace conflicting points of views, and it becomes the leader’s role to mine for what we call “functional conflict”. Challenging norms and perspectives but controlling debate and robust conversations to remain constructive, is a high order skill that is not easily developed. A very high level of trust between leader and team members is required.
As mentioned, trust is critical for effective team functioning, and is the glue to strong-lasting relationships. An effective team leader builds and maintains trust between themselves and team members, as well as between each team member. Trust and relationships can be best built by leader actions and behaviours towards being reliable, open, accepting and genuine. Empathy for others and respect also help greatly.
By principled I mean virtuous or behaving in line with their values. For me the two greatest virtues a team leader can espouse is demonstrating wisdom in the way they lead and the courage to lead.
Wisdom comes from being able to see others’ perspectives and through being open to and considering of different points of view. It is demonstrated through sound judgement being applied no matter the circumstance. No two situations are approached or treated in the same manner and the greatest good is always the goal.
Finally, the courage to lead, involves taking calculated risks, being true to what you believe, and doing the right thing no matter what. This involves having strong personal values along with the fortitude and tenacity to act on those convictions. A courageous team leader will not shy away from tackle team problems which can only make the team stronger.
So, there you have it, an effective team leader is – a great orator, emotionally intelligent, competent and principled. How do you stack-up? Being a team leader bestows great authority and with that comes even greater responsibility to be the best that one can be. Lifelong learning and challenging self to continuously improve then becomes the fifth requirement of a great team leader. Again, how do you stack-up?