6 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Skills

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Looking to improve your leadership skills? What steps can you take to become a better leader?

Improving leadership skills can help you move up the corporate ladder, get a raise, gain the respect of your colleagues and employees, and more. In the process, you may even find that you’re not only improving as a leader, but as a person as well.

Here are six ways to improve your leadership skills.

1. Give Your Colleagues Advice on How to Handle You

If you are in the process of improving your leadership skills, let your coworkers know about your journey. The process of ending your bad habits will likely take a while to complete—months, or possibly even years. While you’re still in the process of trying to change—and are therefore still engaging in your bad habits, even if only occasionally—you should help your colleagues by directly and honestly telling them about the possible poor behavior they can expect from you, and apologizing for it in advance. 

For example, if you know you have a problem with anger, warn the people around you about your short temper. Reassure them that if you do snap at them, it’s nothing personal, and preemptively apologize for doing so. Let them know that this is an issue you’re working on, and that you understand that it’s not acceptable behavior. 

Forewarning your colleagues about your bad behavior will benefit you because your honesty will earn you at least a degree of respect. Your colleagues will appreciate that it takes courage and humility to admit that you’re behaving badly, and will think better of you for doing so. They won’t be completely happy with you—after all, you still haven’t fully shaken off your bad habit—but their opinion of you may improve a little. 

It’s important to note that warning people about your bad behavior in this way shouldn’t be used as a substitute for actually changing the behavior in question. You still need to work to overcome your bad habits. This is simply a technique you can use to try to mitigate the damage to your reputation while you still haven’t quite gotten out of the habit of behaving badly. 

2. Don’t Make Your Staff Too Dependent on You

As a leader or manager, it’s important that you give your subordinates the opportunity to seek your advice, get your opinion on major decisions, and ask for support when they need it. You can’t simply leave your staff to their own devices and expect things to run smoothly. You need to provide your team with some direction, inspiration, and guidance.

However, it’s important not to go too far the other way, and make your staff too dependent on your input or reassurance. For instance, your subordinates shouldn’t become totally incapable of making a decision or completing a task without asking you for advice or encouragement. If you let your staff become dependent on you in this way, you’re quickly going to find yourself overwhelmed by mountains of work. Not only are you going to have to complete your own tasks, you’re also going to have to help your subordinates with all of their tasks, too—a time-consuming and draining process. 

How can you strike a balance between not giving your subordinates enough help, and making them too reliant on your help? One possible approach is that taken by one of Goldsmith’s former clients, a magazine editor who wanted to leave work earlier each night to spend time with her family, but whose subordinates felt abandoned when she suddenly made this change. They’d become too dependent on their editor, and felt that they needed her advice on almost every task they were assigned.  

To encourage her staff to become more independent, the editor asked each member of her team to identify the tasks that, upon reflection, they could easily complete on their own, and which ones they absolutely needed her help with. In essence, the editor forced her staff to acknowledge that they didn’t need her around all of the time, and were actually much more capable than they gave themselves credit for. Coming to this realization made the staff much less reliant on her input—and enabled the editor herself to go home a little bit earlier each night. 

3. Stop Assuming That What Works for You Works for Your Staff

According to Goldsmith, one of the most common mistakes made by managers is believing that what works for them, works for their staff. In other words, these leaders believe that because they like to be managed in a certain way—for example, with a hands-off approach that gives them lots of freedom to act as they wish—their subordinates must also like to be managed in that same way. They fail to consider that actually, everyone has different opinions on how they like to be managed, and that just because a certain approach works for one person doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone.

For example, imagine you’re someone who likes to be managed in a somewhat aggressive way. You like it when your superiors criticize or make harsh remarks about you. Criticism gives you the motivation you need to work even harder, and anyway, most of the harsh comments sent your way are just banter—you know your superiors don’t mean what they say. 

Because you personally enjoy being managed in this aggressive way, you assume that this is the “right” way to manage everyone—including your subordinates. Unfortunately, most of your subordinates find your aggression and constant criticism hurtful and demoralizing. They would prefer a kinder style of management, with more encouragement and fewer hurtful comments. Because you give them the exact opposite of what they want, they end up thinking that you’re a bit of a jerk.

To avoid a situation like this, constantly remind yourself that every person on your team is a unique individual with a different personality and a different preference on how they like to be managed. Remember that nobody you manage will be an exact clone of you, so you can’t just treat them in the way you would like to be treated. Instead, it’s important to get to know every member of your team, figure out what style of management they respond best to, and treat them accordingly. 

4. Follow Up to Make Sure People Absorb Your Ideas

In Goldsmith’s view, another common error by managers is assuming they only have to give their subordinates a message once for that message to sink in. These leaders engage in what Goldsmith calls “checking the box.” They communicate the message they want to get across once, tick this task off their to-do list, and never return to it again. They never check whether their message was either received or comprehended.

In reality, it sometimes takes multiple attempts for a message to be paid attention to and absorbed. Goldsmith argues that to ensure their message sinks in, leaders must follow up with each of their subordinates and repeat their message until they’re absolutely certain that it’s been both heeded and fully understood. 

For example, a team leader may think that if he wants to communicate a new team mission, he can simply send one mass email to all of his team members and then tick this task off his to-do list. He assumes that all of his team members will immediately understand and adopt the team’s new vision, and he’ll never have to explain it again. 

However, what this leader fails to consider is that there’s no guarantee that all of his team members will fully understand what the new team mission entails the first time they hear about it. They might need more clarity on what this new vision means for the team and the way that they work—clarity that, if the leader simply moves on from his task of sending the email and never thinks about it again, they won’t get. 

What the leader really needs to do in this situation is send his initial email communicating the new mission, then, a day later, send another message asking his team members whether they all read and understood this first email. This gives his subordinates the chance to request further explanation of the leader’s message if they need it.

5. Stop Making Assumptions About Your Employees

This piece of advice applies particularly to managers who’ve been in the workforce for some time now—for instance, for multiple decades. Goldsmith argues that many leaders who’ve been in business for a long time hold outdated assumptions about how their employees think, feel, and work—assumptions that they need to abandon if they want to have any chance of retaining these employees. Specifically, Goldsmith believes that these managers hold the following four misguided assumptions:

Assumption #1: “All my employees ever want is more money. If I pay them more, they’ll stay at my company.” This may have been true in the past, but these days, many employees take much more than just their salary into account when deciding whether or not to move on from an employer. They consider factors such as whether their work is challenging enough, whether they’re learning anything new from what they’re doing, and whether there’s any chance of them progressing at their current company. If you want to keep your employees, you need to make sure that needs such as these are fulfilled—that they gain satisfaction from their job, not just lots of money.

Assumption #2: “I could easily do all of my employees’ jobs.” This probably isn’t true due to the fact that technology is constantly advancing and every new generation brings a new set of technical skills to the workplace. Unless you’ve kept up with every technological advance in your field—and undertaken training on each new technology—there’s a high chance that recently- qualified workers possess knowledge that you don’t and use technical skills that you don’t have. Your employees have learned techniques during their training that simply didn’t exist when you were a student—and you should respect them for that. 

Assumption #3: “My employees are selfish because they want satisfaction from their job. I don’t pay them to be happy—I pay them to work hard.” In the past, employees were expected to sacrifice their own needs for the good of their employer. They were expected to do as they were told, regardless of whether they liked it or not, because the company’s success was what mattered, not their personal enjoyment of their role. Many managers who’ve been in their job for decades have internalized these now-outdated views, and try to cling to them. This creates a clash with newer generations of workers, who tend to put their happiness above the success of their employer. 

If you find yourself on the more traditionally-minded side of this clash, it may be time for you to come to terms with the fact that the working world has changed considerably since you first entered it. If you refuse to respect and accept the changing priorities of your employees, you’re going to lose them to competitors who will. 

Assumption #4: “All of my employees are easily replaceable, so I can treat them however I want. It doesn’t matter if they leave.” This may be true of some of your employees—for instance, those who have commonly-held skills, or whose work isn’t exceptional. However, every company—including yours—has a handful of star employees whose talent simply cannot be matched. These individuals are so skillful (and, frequently, so charismatic) that no matter how hard you tried, you probably wouldn’t be able to find a replacement who’s at their level. While you should treat all of your workers well and with respect, it’s especially important to keep your star employees happy. If you don’t, they’ll move elsewhere. Not only will you lose their incredible skills, but one of your competitors will gain them.

6. It’s Okay to Stop Helping Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Change

Goldsmith believes that some employees are, for want of a better word, unsalvageable. They simply don’t have the skills or the attitude required to succeed at your company. Perhaps they’re convinced that there’s nothing wrong with the way they work, and you’re simply being too harsh of a boss. Maybe they don’t have the required knowledge to do their job properly and have no inclination to gain that knowledge. Whatever the case, they’re clearly not a good fit for your organization.

When you come across an employee like this, Goldsmith argues that you shouldn’t keep trying to get them to change. It’s okay to maybe give them two or three opportunities to improve, but if, after these chances, they still haven’t made any attempt to change for the better, it’s fine to just give up. Ultimately, employees like this have absolutely no inclination to modify their behavior. They’re happy with the way they are, and nothing you say or do can change that. Your best option is to wish such employees well, but let them go. 

6 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Skills

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  • Why many middle managers find it hard to move up the corporate ladder
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  • How becoming too goal-oriented can actually harm your career

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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