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Anatomy of a Leader: The practical skills you need to get to the top

What makes a leader great? To answer that accurately, it’s first important to differentiate a leader from a manager.

Managers are usually found in the upper echelons of business - by contrast, leaders can be found at any organisational level; managers organise, leaders influence; managers delegate, leaders inspire.
In very simple terms: managers say ‘go’, leaders say ‘let’s go’.

The specific anatomy of a leader varies as much as the businesses they lead. But there are some skills that separate the great leaders from the not so great ones.

A study by Harvard Business Review found respect to be the single most important thing employees valued in a leader - more important in fact than recognition, vision, feedback or development opportunities.

Leaders who show respect can have an overwhelming impact on employees’ health and well-being, their trust, satisfaction, focus, engagement, loyalty and the sense of meaning their work provides. A pretty powerful skill then.

Employees are increasingly seeking employers with a clear vision and set of values aligned to their own. Roles which provide a sense of purpose are particularly motivating; 74% of respondents in a recent survey said they want a job where their work matters.

This doesn’t mean all leaders need to be gregarious extroverts, but they do need passion and a belief in the end goal to enthuse others.

Understanding and empathising with peoples’ challenges and allowing them to make mistakes is critical for leaders to form a connection with their staff. A study by Marketing Week found relationship building was the most essential attribute for a modern marketing leader next to strategic thinking. 

Leaders who empathise with their employees instil confidence that they’re working in their best interest and create a feeling of safety. Clearly, this is much more conducive to productivity than the alternative.

Being open and honest is essential for building trust. The best leaders are those who communicate honestly and regularly and are clear about their expectations. This helps staff understand their part and feel more engaged.

Likewise, leaders who encourage a culture of transparency in which staff can share ideas without fear of reprisal will reap the rewards of higher satisfaction and performance.

Research shows that empowered staff are more productive, have better customer service, and have higher levels of job satisfaction.

Leaders who want to successfully empower their employees need to be able to relinquish control, trust in the ability of their teams and properly equip them to get things done. This requires them to understand and nurture the unique value and strengths each employee brings to the table. 

Good leaders need to be flexible in two senses: Firstly, they must be open to new concepts and not afraid to change course if things aren’t going to plan. In a world of constant change, this adaptability makes them more likely to lead the business to success.

Secondly, they should enable their staff to work flexibly for a better work-life balance. A flexible worker is both happier and more productive. And their absence rates are lower too.

Tenacity and perseverance are fundamental. In the competition to get ahead, leaders need to be willing to push things forward, take calculated risks and go against the status quo – even in the face of adversity.

At the same time, they need to keep their teams motivated and on track. Keeping calm and being able to make decisions under such pressure are also vital in this respect.

When it comes to leaders, there’s ‘no one size fits all’ – different qualities appeal to different employees. But those with the basic anatomy: vision, drive, transparency, empathy, flexibility and respect, will usually be able to lead even the most challenging teams to success.