Whether leaders are born or made is a question that has fascinated political, economic and business minds for centuries. Traditionally, leaders were considered to be born possessing the innate skills necessary to successfully lead others.
Since then, our mode of thinking has come a long way. It’s important to remember that leadership is not always formally hierarchical, and leaders often emerge even if they do not have the title of manager or director – a leader may be someone taking the helm on a project with colleagues. Leadership involves a certain level of innate ability, such as vision, charisma and interpersonal skills, but it also involves hard work to acquire the technical skills and knowledge needed to succeed within any given industry.
You only have to look at the business world to see that the best leaders successfully maintain this fine balance. We all know the radical success stories – self-made leaders of industry such as James Dyson and Richard Branson who started from nothing and built successful empires through a combination of their innate skills set, vision and hard work. But there is a vast number of largely untold stories of successful business leaders who have come to dominate in their chosen fields by using their combined technical and interpersonal skills to lead teams that excel.
The power of interpersonal skills cannot be understated. Take the example of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott character in The Office. Scott is said to have received many awards during his time as a salesman, and it is made clear throughout the series that he is a very skilled salesman with in-depth knowledge of the market he is working within. But in his role as manager he is utterly inept, committing all sorts of social faux pas and constantly alienating his staff. Despite all his skill as a salesman, he lacks interpersonal skills; he is a poor leader.
What we can learn from this is that no amount of business acumen and textbook management theory is ever going to be useful if you cannot develop strong interpersonal skills and adapt your management style to get the best out of individual members of the team. Remember that in management, getting to grips with the financial side of the business is only a small aspect of your job as a leader. It is people you are managing, not products.
You need to earn respect, which means being a good listener, and letting your employees know that they are being heard whilst also giving them all the information they need to do a good job. You need to inspire your team and build strong, professional relationships without condescension or over familiarity. You need not only to get your objectives and requirements across to your colleagues, but also have them accepted as legitimate. This involves forming and sharing a coherent vision of where you want the business to be in the future – something that can only be achieved with mutual respect and genuine collaboration.
Learn from Others
Strong interpersonal skills can be developed in part by paying close attention to what you and others observe about other leaders. You can learn from others, good and bad, from studying other employees and leaders.
This does not mean merely copying all of the ideas, behaviours and attitudes of other leaders. It means to critically observe what it is that makes them good at what they do, cherry-picking the best ideas and putting them into practice in a way that is unique to you. One way leaders have traditionally gone about developing is through mentoring [link to mentoring infographic], which provides invaluable lessons and insights from senior people who are leading successful businesses.
There are also thousands of books on leadership, ranging from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to Kouzes et al’s The Truth about Leadership. It’s worth reading widely: don’t just restrict yourself to the business section of the bookstore. Books alone of course, can not provide you everything you need, but by mixing different sources of learning, your leadership skills and knowledge will grow.
Ultimately, your ability to learn leadership skills boils down to your level of self-awareness. You need to have a clear, objective idea of how you are perceived based on the attitudes and responses of your colleagues and staff. This not only involves listening, but also explicitly asking for feedback from those around you and taking a step back from your own involvement in something to see your place in the bigger picture. If you know the business and learn the social skills of a leader for yourself, you may be on your way to developing yourself into a great leader.