8 Ways to Develop Your Leadership Skills
Leadership skills are prized at school, university and in most careers.
It’s not hard to see why. Good leaders are very rare; someone who is both able to do a particular task well and who is able to encourage and inspire others around them is a find to be treasured. Many people are simply uninterested in taking on leadership roles, and would prefer to follow where possible. Others have the desire for leadership, but aren’t willing to put in the hard work of practice and self-reflection to develop their skills. This means that if you’re someone with both the inclination towards leadership and the desire to develop your skills, you’ll be worth your weight in gold to an employer.
Leadership can take many different forms. It might be that you want to captain your school’s football team or chair the debating society. Or perhaps you’re interested in politics or activism. Or it may be that you’re set on taking a managerial role when you enter the world of work, aiming to become a CEO as soon as possible. In this article, we take a look at what you can do to improve your leadership skills, whatever your ambitions may be.
1. Give yourself opportunities to practice
You might not be much interested in extracurriculars, but if you want to take on leadership roles in the future, they’re the best way both to demonstrate your leadership abilities (for instance, for future CVs and personal statements) and to develop those skills in a relatively low-risk environment. Part-time work and activities outside of school are likely to have an age barrier in place – formally or otherwise – that would prevent you from taking on a leadership position, but school clubs and sports teams will have no such bar for their chairs and captains.
Because of the shortage of people who want to take on leadership roles in the first place, it’s often relatively straightforward to gain a leadership role in extracurricular activities. It’s also a setting that’s relatively forgiving of errors. Making sure that you turn up and perform the basic requirements of the role can be all that’s required (such as booking your team into competitions, or making sure that the membership is registered so that the school can provide a subsidy) and anything that you do above and beyond this can be a bonus. But these are the circumstances under which you’ll learn how to deal with managing people who may have conflicting opinions, and seeing if you can enable them to work together so that your team becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
2. Get some honest feedback
The difficulty with filling a much-needed role in school extracurricular activities is that if you’re doing a reasonable job, people may be disinclined to criticise you for fear of putting you off. That’s unfortunate, because getting good feedback is vital to improving your leadership skills. If you have a close friend in the team you’re leading, they might be prepared to have a difficult conversation with you, along the lines of “I feel like you could have handled this better”, but then as your friend they’re also more likely to see the situation from your point of view.
In a work context, you might receive 360 degree feedback, which means feedback from someone subordinate to you, someone at the same level as you and someone managing you. It’s unlikely that your extracurricular role will have anything this sophisticated (thank them if they do!) but you can set up your own version by asking a few people who you respect if they wouldn’t mind giving you their opinion. If that doesn’t work, consider inviting anonymous feedback by means of something like a Google form. Or if it’s an activity that takes place with a teacher being involved – such as a PE teacher working with the school hockey team – you can ask them for their thoughts on your performance. Aim to get actionable feedback wherever possible; “you could communicate better” is useful, but “your communication style is too wordy so that the message gets lost” is more so.
3. Work on being a better follower
No one is a leader all the time. You might be a leader in one context but a follower in another; for instance, if you’re the captain of the school chess team but only have a chorus role in drama club. And that’s the case all the way through life; even CEOs are beholden to boards of shareholders, for instance.
But even on those occasions when you’re a follower, you can develop your leadership skills. First of all, learn from those leaders; what are they doing right or wrong? What would you do differently? Is there anything in their style of leadership that you can’t emulate – for instance, do they fall back on humour to lighten the mood when you might not be able to, or do they use age and experience to grant themselves authority?
More important than these things, though, is the chance to become a better follower. Based on your own leadership experience, think about what you as a leader would want someone in the position of follower to be doing, and then do it. This won’t just make life easier for the leaders that you’re working with; it’ll also enable you to think about leadership from a different perspective, and how to encourage the kind of behaviour that you’re now demonstrating. You might notice, for instance, that there are leaders who inspire you to do something but then make it tricky to carry out that task. Think about how you might avoid making the same mistake.
4. Think about the potential of your team
One of the key tasks of being a good leader is developing your team to the full extent of their potential. This might seem obvious, but it’s an aspect of leadership that’s easily forgotten in the day to day work of getting the job done. Make sure that you take some time to think about your team members – separately and together – to consider what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how you can develop them.
This can be a trickier task than you think. For one, your team members’ individual assessments of their strengths and weaknesses may not tally with your own, so they might be reluctant to be developed in the direction that you intend. For another, building someone’s skills necessarily involves putting them in a position where they might do a worse job than where they were previously; getting your team to support such a decision is a true test of leadership.
The ultimate goal of any leader is to have a successor in place who will ensure that all of your hard work doesn’t go to waste. That’s particularly important in a school context where you know you won’t be carrying out the role for that long. So if there’s anyone in your team who you think would be good at stepping up and taking your place, help them to work on their leadership skills and give them opportunities to lead too.
5. Set yourself clear and achievable goals
Your role as a leader is to support everyone else’s development, but don’t neglect your own. Beyond getting and acting on feedback, one way you can check your personal development is by setting yourself quantifiable, achievable goals and keeping score against them. If your team is competitive in some sense – whether that’s chess or kickboxing – there will be an easy way to keep score. For instance, you could compare your performance with that of teams in previous years.
It’s also good to find a way to measure your success as a leader separately from the success of the team as a whole. What sort of metric you use depends on what you’re trying to achieve. For example, you might want to track how often team members come to you for advice, how much the team grows while you’re in charge, or how often team members volunteer for new tasks. Whatever metric you use, make sure that your targets are achievable, and ideally go for targets that will allow you to measure your progress over time (rather than ones where you will seldom achieve your goals, or that are affected by the time of year). Not only does this help you monitor your own success, it also gives you a useful statistic for future – for instance, “I doubled the size of the team in my first six months, and doubled it again within the next three months” could sound very impressive on a job application.
6. Don’t pay too much attention to personality tests
You might be given the advice to use personality tests to develop your leadership abilities – anything from well-known tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to pop psychology quizzes such as the one where you’re instructed to draw a pig and the way you draw it is supposed to indicate your personality (e.g. a large-eared pig = a good listener).
It’s reasonably obvious why you shouldn’t draw conclusions from sketching pigs, but while you should take as many personality tests as you like, you shouldn’t pay too much attention to their conclusions. Many lack scientific rigour, or are appropriate for a particular cultural setting but not for others (and that cultural setting may be thirty years in the past). This means that their conclusions will be flawed. Even those that are founded in reasonable science can mislead you. For instance, if you’re told that because you’re an introvert, you should use a particular leadership style when a different style has been working just fine for you, then it’s probably best to go with your own experience and ignore the quiz.
It’s important to remember that such quizzes are tools that have been created with the intention of helping you; if they don’t help, they’re failing. Where they can be useful is if you learn something about yourself that you might not have realised on your own, and that you can then act on. But if their conclusions seem counter-intuitive, feel free to ignore them and carry on doing what works for you.
7. Do your best on minor tasks
There will undoubtedly be a lot of minor tasks in your leadership role, whether that’s minor competitions, flyering or organising the AGM. These might not have the sense of importance and glory that some of your work will have, but they deserve your full attention anyway. This isn’t just because you’re conscientious and you want to give your all to every aspect of the role. It’s also because minor tasks will reveal the cracks in your leadership that might break under the strain of the more significant requirements of the role.
Are there a couple of people who always snipe at each other – or you – whenever they’re asked to complete a minor task? They might resolve their differences under pressure, or it might break out into an all-out fight. Is there someone who tries to duck out of minor responsibilities whenever they can, such as tidying up the room after practice? It’s probably best not to count on them in any position of responsibility in major competitions. Minor tasks will reveal these flaws in your team, so pay attention and try to pick up on them before they pose a serious problem.
8. Work on listening
Probably the single most important skill that you can learn as a leader is the art of listening. There will be issues that you’ll pick up when requesting feedback, or that you’ll see when minor tasks are being completed. But there are others that you won’t be able to spot and they’ll rely on you having good lines of communication open with your team.
That means honing your listening skills. If a team member seems gloomy and you ask them what’s up, be prepared to listen properly to the reply and act on it if need be. If someone is grumbling at you about something that sounds irrelevant, see if there’s any actual substance to their complaint. Good leaders are always good listeners – pay attention to your team, and they’ll lead you to success.
Images: following sheep; aerobic team; basketball hoop; pigeons; busy office woman; feedback; listening; girl in yellow top; mountaineers; ducks