Skills Good Leaders Need

There are a number of broad skill areas that are particularly important for leaders.
These include strategic thinking, planning and delivery, people management, change management, communication, and persuasion and influencing.

Strategic Thinking Skills

Perhaps the most important skill a leader needs—and what really distinguishes leaders from managers—is to be able to think strategically.
This means, in simple terms, having an idea or vision of where you want to be and working to achieve that.
The best strategic thinkers see the big picture, and are not distracted by side issues or minor details. All their decisions are likely to be broadly based on their answer to the question ‘does this take me closer to where I want to be?’
Of course as well as being able to create a compelling vision, they must also be able to communicate it effectively to their followers, which is partly why communication skills are also vital to leaders.

Planning and Delivery Skills

While it is important to be personally organised and motivated as a leader—and see our pages on Time Management and Self-Motivation for more about these areas—it is perhaps even more important to be able to plan and deliver for the organisation.

These areas are key management skills, but the best leaders will also be able to turn their hand to these. The best vision in the world is no good without the plan to turn it into reality.
Alongside strategic thinking, therefore, go organising and action planning, both essential for delivery of your vision and strategy. Project management and project planning are also helpful skills for both managers and leaders. Good risk management is also important to help you avoid things going wrong, and manage when they do.

People Management Skills

Without followers, there are no leaders. Leaders therefore need skills in working with others on a one-to-one and group basis, and a range of tools in their armoury to deal with a wide range of situations. Many of these skills are also vital for managers, and you can find out more about these in our page on Management Skills.

In particular, leaders are expected to motivate and encourage their followers, both directly (see our page on Motivating others) and by Creating a Motivational Environment.

One of the first skills that new leaders need to master is how to delegate. This is a difficult skill for many people but, done well, delegation can give team members responsibility and a taste of leadership themselves, and help them to remain motivated. See our page on Delegation Skills for more.

There are further challenges to delegating work within a team, including balancing workloads, and ensuring that everyone is given opportunities to help them develop. See our page on Overseeing Work for more.

Change Management and Innovation Skills

Change management may seem like an odd companion to people management and communication, but leadership is often particularly important at times of change.

A leader needs to understand change management in order to lead an organisation through the process. For example, change management requires the creation and communication of a compelling vision. It also requires the change to be driven forward firmly, and leadership to make it ‘stick’ if the organisation is not to revert within a very short period.

Our pages on Change Management explain more about this, including:

One particular element of change management is innovation. Good leaders know how to innovate, and also how to encourage innovation in others. Our page on Innovation Skills explains more.

Communication Skills

While communication skills are important for everyone, leaders and managers perhaps need them even more. These skills are general interpersonal skills, not specific to leadership, but successful leaders tend to show high levels of skill when communicating.

Good leaders tend to be extremely good listeners, able to listen actively and elicit information by good questioning. They are also likely to show high levels of assertiveness, which enables them to make their point without aggression, but firmly. They know how to build rapport quickly and effectively, to develop good, strong relationships with others, whether peers or subordinates. These skills come together to help to build charisma, that quality of ‘brightness’ which makes people want to follow a leader.

Leaders also need to know how to give others their views on personal performance in a way that will be constructive rather than destructive, and also hear others’ opinions of them. See our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback for more.

They are usually very good at effective speaking, equally skilled at getting their point across in a formal presentation or Board meeting, or in an informal meeting or casual corridor conversation. They have also honed their ability to communicate in difficult situations, usually by practice over time.

Persuasion and Influencing Skills

Finally, one particular area of communicating that is especially important for leaders is being able to persuade and influence others.

Good leaders use a range of tools for this. For more, see our pages on Persuasion and Influencing, and Developing Persuasion Skills.

Leaders also need tools to help them understand the way that others behave, and create positive interactions. As a first step, it may be helpful to understand more about emotional intelligence—another vital quality for leaders to possess—but there are a number of other tools that may also be useful, including Transactional Analysis, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicators.