Essential guide to leadership

Business owner showing leadership skills in meeting with business team

Whether you are the managing director of a company or a team leader, the way you lead is the single biggest success factor for everyone you work with. Aim to make the most of your strengths and develop key skills such as communication, delegation and effective decision-making.

Leadership at all levels

Leadership from the top

Communicating the vision

What do leaders do?

What must leaders do more of?

Making decisions

Manage the team

Know yourself

1. Leadership at all levels

Leadership is about creating positive change to achieve long-term objectives.

Leadership involves moving the business forwards

  • You need to have and communicate a vision and set goals.
  • It is vital to make the best use of resources, including people's talent.

Leaders have to demonstrate the authority to lead

  • For example, in a new job you should usually start by asking questions. You need a sound knowledge base and the confidence and trust of the people you will lead.

Leading a team means developing and motivating individuals and groups

  • Managing the team includes helping people find meaning and purpose in what they are doing, so that it is seen to be worthwhile.
  • Leaders create more leaders. By setting a positive example and allowing people to learn and develop on the job, you encourage them to take a more proactive role.

Leaders must often press ahead where managers see problems and back off

  • For example, every new product idea will face a series of obstacles. A leader will facilitate the process of finding solutions. Managers at office level may need inspiration and an opportunity to voice their ideas.

2. Leadership from the top

The managing director has a wider leadership role, which includes leading other leaders.

Create the vision, based on an understanding of strategic opportunities

  • A vision provides focus and can stop your business drifting in the wrong direction.
  • It is an achievable goal that you and your team are working towards.
  • The vision for your business should also focus on how to achieve your goals by outlining your values and beliefs.
  • It must be worth the effort, or it will not inspire or motivate your people.

Form the team and a structure that helps you deliver the vision

  • For a new line of business, you need to decide on your business model: this will determine the infrastructure, people and level of investment that you will need.

3. Communicating the vision

As a leader, you are responsible for communicating the company vision

  • The vision should inspire enthusiasm, belief, commitment and excitement in your employees.
  • The vision should promote the unique strengths, culture, beliefs and direction of the organisation.

Company vision statements and mission statements articulate the vision clearly

  • A mission statement defines the organisation's purpose and objectives, usually in one or two simple sentences.
  • A vision statement adds detail about the organisation's core values, providing guidance about how things should be done as well as the goals for the business.

A leader should embody these values and reflect them in their own behaviour at all times

4. What do leaders do?

Achieve clarity about the changes that must happen

  • For example, a courier business might need to grow quickly - possibly by acquisition - to achieve the critical mass that makes multi-drop trips possible.
  • Once people are clear about the need for change, they will begin to work towards it.

Turn ideas into action points and motivate others to act on them

  • Be flexible about ways and means - 'tough on the what, easy on the how'.
  • Ask managers to put proposals in summary form and explain how each one relates to the company vision.
  • Encourage people to achieve more by setting demanding targets and helping them to achieve them.

Get commitment from your team based on honest, realistic, two-way discussion

  • Make it clear that you expect problems to occur, but that they will be overcome.
  • Let everyone see that you are confident about the long-term future.

Create a climate of learning, so people know it is safe to make mistakes

  • Without the confidence to take risks and sometimes make mistakes, it is difficult for a business to keep developing.

Keep going

  • Without persistence and flexibility, even the best ideas can come to nothing.
  • One survey found that 80% of corporate change programmes had failed within two years. Of the surviving programmes which were successful, 75% had come close to being scrapped at some point.

Learn from your experiences

  • At the very least, make sure you do not make the same mistakes twice.

Great mistakes

Business is about planning, but you still end up moving forward by trial and error.

Managers who seek scapegoats when things go wrong create an environment in which people avoid experimenting and taking risks.

Realistic leaders foster a climate in which it is OK to make mistakes, as long as they are not caused by carelessness or stupidity.

A retailer, for example, will back the buyer's judgement and give customers a chance to try a new line. If it flops, it is soon forgotten. If it flies off the shelves, supplies are scaled up and everyone celebrates a success.

In a business where people are not afraid to try and fail, the flow of ideas can become a major asset.

5. What must leaders do more of?

Make time to look into the future

  • Don't let the immediate day-to-day challenges of running your business take up all of your attention

Make complex things simple

  • People try harder and make fewer mistakes when they all understand what is going on.

Always try to change the organisation for the better and move it forward

  • When you see the chance to bring in real improvements, make the changes as soon as possible.

Invest time and effort in networking

  • Put in time with your contacts outside the business, especially friends who run other companies.
  • Spend time talking to customers, industry experts and journalists.
  • Build alliances by co-operating, even in small ways, with other organisations.
  • Promote your business tirelessly and enthusiastically wherever you go.

Be systematic, so things do not fall through the cracks

  • Your example will encourage other people to work in a methodical way.

Add value yourself every day

  • The best leaders sell, negotiate, plan and administer every day, and get through a mountain of work by managing their time effectively.
  • Phone or visit customers and suppliers. Be seen to get personally involved.
  • Know yourself. Be aware of your own strengths, weaknesses and qualities.

Where do the ideas come from?

Most leaders have their best ideas almost anywhere other than in the office.

At work, there are too many distractions and you become immersed in everyday detail. Ideas come when people have time to think.

Other people's thinking may spark new ideas

  • Talking to business people and friends.
  • Following inspirational leaders on social media.
  • Reading blogs and subscribing to e-newsletters.
  • Reading books (many leaders get inspiration from biographies).
  • Keeping up with current affairs via newspapers, radio and TV.
  • Using Google alerts to stay informed.

Ideas can come to you during time you usually think of as unproductive

  • Using social media and networking.
  • At home - in the garden or even in the bath.
  • On trains and planes or stuck in traffic jams.
  • While walking, cycling or exercising.
  • Overnight, when you decide to sleep on it.

6. Making decisions

Delegate as much decision-making as possible

Be dynamic in the decisions you need to make yourself

  • Decisiveness is a virtue. Procrastination rarely makes decisions easier.
  • Delaying decisions usually holds other people up, and is a bad habit that others tend to copy.

Many decisions can be made immediately, without consulting others

  • When the decisions only affect you, or they are minor or routine.
  • When an inexperienced team needs to be told what to do.
  • When speed is vital. For example, when you are close to deadlines.

More important decisions should be made having consulted others

  • Question and listen to others that may know more about the issue than you. Outline the objectives, problems and ideas, and invite comments.
  • Participation in the discussion helps win the commitment of those affected.

Train your people to use their initiative

  • Encourage them to present you with solutions rather than problems.

7. Manage the team

The lighter your management touch when things are going smoothly, the more you have in reserve for emergencies.

Delegate more than you think is possible

  • Break strategy down into projects that individuals or small groups can tackle.
  • Provide positive supervision. Ask people what they feel they are best at - and give them the chance to do more of it.

Motivate people by showing you notice everything that goes on

  • Build people's confidence by trusting them with challenging projects and targets.
  • Let people know that their views and ideas are always taken seriously.
  • Give full credit for every success.
  • Give individuals rewards that matter to them. A half-day off may cost less and mean more than a cash bonus.

Lead by example

  • Show the honesty and consistency that people want from a leader.
  • Let everyone see from your actions what you mean by excellent service.
  • Show confidence. If there is a problem with a particular customer, let everyone see that you are prepared to pick it up yourself and sort it out.

Develop people's talent

  • Provide training for the team and for each person individually, including yourself.
  • Encourage employees to try new things.
  • Create opportunities for people to learn without risking disaster.

Make communicating second nature

  • Question, listen and take time to ensure employees understand the reasons for any important decisions.
  • Consider how people will be affected before communicating changes.
  • Show appreciation and support. For instance, remember to put employees at their ease, stay composed in times of trial and don't forget to say thank you.

Address underperformance and other issues

  • A leader must be able to tackle difficult subjects in a timely and skilful manner.

8. Know yourself

Leadership skills are a mixture of natural talents and learned technique. Explore your own approaches and attitudes, play to your strengths and avoid - or work to improve - your weaker points.

How good are you at working with other people?

  • Can you gain the respect and support of others?
  • Can you fire them up with your enthusiasm, energy and vision?

How decisive are you?

  • Is your approach to making decisions right for the circumstances?

Is your imagination a leadership asset?

  • Is the detail and clarity of your vision an inspiration to your employees?

Is your analytical ability a key strength?

Do you have the energy and drive to work hard and see jobs through to completion?

  • If you accept nothing but the best, people will take their cue from you.

Are you realistic enough to bring in other people to cover your back?

  • You can benefit by working with others who are not like you.

Are you prepared to learn from other people's experiences?

Do people have faith in your integrity?

  • A good leader is open and flexible in approaching problems, but unwavering about values.
  • You must embody the company vision in your own behaviour.


Expert quotes

"Leadership is, above all else, about people. The most successful leaders started with knowing themselves well - 'What am I good at? What did I need help with?' and then sharing that understanding with those who they work with." - Shawn O'Rourke, Blue Fox Consulting

"Leadership is about creating the conditions for people to deliver more than they thought they could. It's about putting the right person in the right role and supporting that person to enable him or her to deliver." - Philippa Dickenson, The Thinking Partnership

"Could you enlist someone to be your confidant or mentor? Lining up the right person to act as your sounding-board and reality-checker will help almost any leader produce better results." - Graham Wilson, Leadership and Organisation Development mentor/coach

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