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What is leadership? How to be a leader independent of industry, occupation, and job level

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When groups emerge, so does the opportunity for leadership. Whether in organizations, sports teams, or international affairs, leadership is one of the most relevant phenomena. So, at its core, what is leadership in the workplace?

It’s important to understand that leadership is different from management, which implies a position that is responsible for managing direct reports. Leadership is a mindset that informs your ability to set the example for those around you. It’s about doing the right thing and being a role model. Whether you’re an experienced C-suite executive or an individual contributor fresh out of college, there will be moments when your organization will benefit from your effective leadership.

To determine what qualities define a strong leader, regardless of industry, occupation, or job level, Aktum Group designed a model that synthesizes academic scholarship, management consulting best practices, and our own professional experience as organizational psychologists.

The seven competencies below make up Aktum Group’s Universal Model of Effective Leadership.

  1. Relationship management. Healthy working relationships represent the structural framework of an organization: they allow people to work together effectively. Leaders set the tone for building and maintaining healthy working relationships. This takes the form of knowing how to navigate conflict, building trusting relationships, collaborating with others, and growing a strong professional network.
  2. Empowering others. Leaders not only demonstrate high performance but empower others to do the same. One key distinction here is that effective leaders are proactively invested in the success of those around them. This means demonstrating strong listening skills, delivering constructive feedback, and celebrating the wins of others. When people feel empowered, they grow in motivation, creativity, and ownership of their work.
  3. Vision. An effective leader can formulate and communicate a compelling vision. This vision exists at both a macro level (developing an inspiring organizational or departmental mission) and a micro level (reminding others how their day-to-day tasks contribute to the pursuit of this mission). Communicating a compelling vision provides a clear direction for the team, inspires and motivates team members, and helps them understand how their individual contributions fit into the larger picture.
  4. Ethics. A leader is a role model, and thus ethics are fundamental to the leadership paradigm. When a leader acts with integrity, they establish trust and credibility with team members, stakeholders, and the wider community. A leader is responsible not only for approaching their work with rock-solid ethics but setting the example by communicating this perspective to their colleagues.
  5. Decision-making. Leaders must be careful and strategic decision-makers. Hasty decisions may overlook long-term consequences and lead to costly mistakes, while an overly cautious approach can result in missed opportunities. An effective leader, therefore, strikes the right balance between gathering necessary information and being decisive. This requires a willingness to take calculated risks, as well as the ability to acknowledge mistakes.
  6. Adaptability. For leaders to navigate the inevitable change that characterizes the business landscape, adaptability is vital. Effective leaders embrace change, demonstrate flexibility, and adjust their strategies upon receiving new information. Additionally, leaders who are curious and open to learning are more likely to improve themselves and their organizations by staying at the cutting edge of their industry.
  7. Performance. The strongest leaders balance leading others and prioritizing their own performance. In particular, leaders demonstrate effective time management by knowing which task to prioritize, when to own a task, and when to delegate it. Furthermore, effective leaders are results-oriented and stay highly motivated throughout their careers.

Reflect on what it would mean for you to become a leader. Are you already a leader? Then what would it look like to continue refining your leadership skills? Consider the following tips:

  1. Be you. Your leadership might look different, and that’s OK.

A traditional, archetypal view of leadership conjures up images of a gregarious, charismatic leader with a commanding presence. Although this might be one version, it doesn’t have to be your version. Be authentic and show up as you are. If you’re introverted, remind yourself that the hallmark of leadership isn’t the gift of gab — it’s doing the right thing for your organization and those around you.

  1. Stay humble. Once you’re a successful leader, should you still aim to improve?—Yes!

You may be charismatic and able to communicate a compelling organizational vision, but are you comfortable handling conflict? You might have a knack for giving tactful and constructive feedback, but are you open to receiving feedback as well? The most effective leaders stay humble, regardless of previous success, and continue to hone their leadership skills.

  1. Stay curious. The most effective leaders don’t just teach others — they learn from everyone.

Regardless of professional experience, the most effective leaders aim to consistently improve, and this may mean seeking counsel from those with different perspectives.

  1. Know when to lead and when to follow. Leadership isn’t about always being in charge.

An effective leader doesn’t necessarily need to be the boss, nor do they even need to always lead. The most effective leaders know when to share leadership and when to delegate. As a successful leader, you need to be agile.

Organizations are not just built on great products or services; they are built on great leadership. Your leadership isn’t contingent on landing that next promotion-by finding the moments throughout the workday to inspire excellence within your organization, you’re a leader regardless of title.

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