by Robert A. Isaacson, MA, MSS
©2020 All rights reserved.

How do you learn how to lead? And what are the traits or qualities of good leaders?

Learning to Lead:

Some people say, “Leaders are born, not made.” This point of view suggests people can’t learn how to lead others.

I don’t believe that. You can learn how to lead if you’re willing to invest the time and energy into learning. I coach and train leaders in Full Circle’s Leadership Engagement© coaching program. I couldn’t ethically do that if I didn’t believe it was possible.

You learn to lead in 3 ways, according to Michael Useem, a Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

First you study. You read extensively. You think about leadership as a journey. You’re a life-long learner focused on the topic. You reflect on the qualities of both the good and bad leaders you’ve seen in your life and career. Perhaps you try to emulate the former. You constantly “sharpen the saw,” improving yourself and your leadership skills.

Second you find a coach or mentor to help you. This is a supportive someone (a boss, a sports coach perhaps) “whose willing to give you offline, fine-grained feedback” about your strengths (what you do well), your challenges (or weaknesses) and where you can improve or “further strengthen yourself,” according to Useem.

Third you volunteer. You take risks to do things you’ve never done before. This might be a new project at work, chairing a nonprofit board of directors, etc. This forces you “out of your comfort zone.” You succeed (hopefully) or you occasionally fail, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you toughen yourself and increase your self-confidence.

Listen to Michael Useem about learning to lead.

What are the traits or qualities you want to develop?

Here are the 10 effective leadership traits or qualities I coach leaders on in Full Circle’s Leadership Engagement© coaching program.

  • Be authentic. Be genuinely who you are both as a person and a leader. Don’t try to be like anyone other than who you truly are. Be comfortable in your own skin.
  • Be self-aware. Know your strengths and weaknesses (or challenges). Know how others see you. I call this your personal leadership brand.
  • Use Positive Psychology. Acknowledge what people do well, their strengths. While you have to provide constructive criticism at times, be positive most of the time. Leadership professor Richard Boyatzis says people are more motivated by what he calls the “positive emotional attractor” (dreams, hopes, vision for the future and strengths), than the “negative emotional attractor” (weaknesses, fears, dwelling on the past and what went wrong). Tap into the “positive emotional attractor” as much as you can.
  •  Be a change agent. Always look for opportunities for your company to learn, improve and grow. This is especially true for leaders during turbulent times.
  • Create a clear vision or purpose, a picture of the future and live it. Also, be maximally flexible by using the “heat seeking missile” approach. Having a clear vision and purpose in your life and business obviously is important. Yet at the same time, the “heat seeking missile” approach suggests you need to be very flexible and quickly adapt to change in your marketplace as well as your industry or profession.
  • Feelings count! Increase your own emotional intelligence and help others develop theirs. In the past we rejected the notion that feelings had a place in business. Their awareness and expression were for our personal lives, but had nothing to do with our business relationships.We know better now. Feelings exist everywhere, including in business. The challenge is not to suppress feelings at work, but to be aware of them, use them in decision-making and in connecting (or resonating) with others and managing them when you need to.
  • Engage and empower others. Engaged employees are motivated and committed to doing excellent work and to company success.Barry Schwartz’s research on why people work points to 5 top motivating factors for engagement.
    • Challenge. People are motivated when they’re forced to stretch.
    • Autonomy.  Employees want “a voice in the room” or some discretion about how they do their work.
    • Mastery. People are motivated to be expert at what they do. The more they work at something, the better they get.
    • Social Engagement. Individuals crave some amount of social interaction at work, even if they work alone.
    • Meaning. People want their work to have meaning. They want to make the world a better place, even in small ways. (This may be the most important factor of the 5.)

While important, financial compensation is not among the top 5.

While few jobs have all these features or all these features all of the time, you can promote workplace engagement by implementing strategies and policies that tap into Schwartz’ 5 motivating factors.

  • Coach for skills improvement, accountability, engagement and culture change. Bring in external executive or business coaches to help leaders (and others) improve their effectiveness and success. Also, train and encourage leaders to coach their direct reports and teams to be more productive, more accountable and more engaged.

    Traditional management is directing people and telling them what to do. A coaching approach to management is teaching and empowering people to make their own decisions, as much as possible.

    Encourage coaching if you want to tap into the 5 motivating factors for engagement noted above. The more you encourage coaching, the more possible to create a coaching culture that deeply motivates and engages others.

  • Build, use and work through teams. Teams are an incredibly useful resource. Diverse teams bring new, fresh ideas. They solve problems faster, often better and more creatively than an individual (or uncoordinated group of individuals) can. They build morale. They deepen engagement by tapping into the 5 motivating factors for engagement.

    As you work through teams, you want to provide them with autonomy or “a voice in the room.” You do this by listening and by implementing as many of their decisions as you can.

  • Be ethical. Be honest. Ask yourself this question for every decision you are about to  make or action you are about to take: “Would I be embarrassed if what I am about to do goes online or is in the newspapers tomorrow?” If you would be embarrassed by a decision or action, it’s likely best not to do it.

Robert A. Isaacson, M.A., M.S.S., is a business and executive coach. He helps leaders and executives connect to others emotionally and communicate powerfully to get business results like better performance, profitability and promotions. Bob is the co-founder of Full Circle Solutions, a Philadelphia-area executive coaching and counseling company. He can be reached here and at (610) 446-4981.