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What you need to be an effective leader

You don't need expensive leadership courses to develop effective skills

Leadership is widely regarded as important and, if you want to develop a career in any organisation, you will certainly be expected to develop and demonstrate leadership skills. Unfortunately, there is much less unanimity about what constitutes good leadership, although many have tried to answer this important question.

One key characteristic of effective leadership, which is widely acknowledged and which I want to highlight here, is a concern for people and, closely allied to this, the ability to understand and manage the impact you are having on them. A good leader leaves those who work for her feeling better about their work after an interaction with her. This does not just mean being nice to people; you have also got to get the job done and this will sometimes require a manager to make tough decisions which people will not like.

However, it is also true that as the pace of competition quickens in the global economy and the pressure on spending in publicly funded bodies increases, all organisations will need to do more with fewer resources. This puts a considerable premium on motivating and energising those who work for you to make extra efforts to help your unit or department to succeed and to be willing to do more than is required. This is often referred to as ‘employee engagement’.

How can you achieve this, though? Reporting to government on how to engage workers, Macleod and Clarke (2009) identified the importance of good communication, so that employees can see how their work is contributing to the organisation’s purpose, can express their views and can feel confident that their opinions matter and are heard. They also emphasised the importance of motivating and supporting staff.

You might think that communications policies, motivation and employee support are all HR responsibilities – and of course they are. However, in reality HR responsibilities have been largely devolved to managers in the organisation, and even where policies themselves are well designed, the way they are experienced by your staff depends on how well you carry them out. There is a premium on that most essential of leadership skills: being aware of the impact of your behaviours on your staff and being able to manage your emotions and behaviours so that your impact on them is positive.

Goleman termed this ‘emotional intelligence’ and identified its characteristics as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (see Box). Some people are naturally skilled in these areas; they are easy to work with and for and are often very successful. Others – probably most of us – have to develop these skills. You could do this by enrolling on a leadership development programme, which supports personal development through a combination of psychometric instruments, 360 degree feedback from workplace colleagues, and feedback from peers and tutors on the programme. I have been both student and tutor on programmes of this sort and am convinced of their value in developing awareness and self-management skills.

Leadership programmes are expensive, however, and I am equally convinced that you can develop all these skills in the workplace, using your experiences there as a resource. The two keys to learning in this way are feedback and reflection; you can ask for feedback about the way you perform from those you have a close working relationship with, or you can simply observe carefully the reactions of those who work for you. Your reflections on what you learn can and should lead you to try out new approaches, and you will want to go round this cycle of reflection again. Most of us need some help with this method of workplace learning and you may find a coach or mentor a good support in this.

This practice-based approach to learning is at the heart of the management education we provide at The Open University Business School. Students on our MSc in human resource management, for example, develop their professional skills, including leadership skills, through reflection on workplace practice.

I don’t suggest that developing these leadership skills is easy, but then nor is leadership itself. Improving your ability to respond thoughtfully to the needs of those you lead is a great first step, and can produce significant rewards both for you and for your organisation.

The components of emotional intelligence

  • Self-awareness – being aware of your own moods and impact on others
  • Self-management – being able to control emotions and not be taken over by negative moods
  • Social awareness – using empathy to understand and respond to others’ feelings
  • Relationship management – includes communications skills, managing conflict positively, and relationship building

Adapted from Goleman (2001)

Eileen Arney, lecturer in human resource management and leads the MSc in human resource management at The Open University Business School