Top Leadership Skills You Need

What Sort of Leader are You?

When you first look for a leadership position, the range of skills required can seem daunting. There is, however, general agreement among leaders that certain skills are more important than others.

These, then, are the skills that you need to develop first if you aspire to become a leader—and more importantly, wish to be an effective leader.

This page explains which skills we believe are the most important for leaders. It also points you towards more pages that can help you to develop those skills quickly and effectively.

The first four skills are personal skills, about your attitude to yourself and the way that you behave on a personal level.

They are, as much as anything, about your belief system.

1. Self-Confidence and a Positive Attitude

Leadership starts with yourself.

You cannot expect other people to believe in you if you do not believe in yourself.

This does not mean a blind belief in your omnipotence, in the face of evidence, but rather an acceptance of yourself, and a confidence that you know what to do to get the job done, including through others.

It is also important for leaders to show a positive and can-do attitude. Positive thinking—or the belief that you can achieve things if you believe it is possible—may sound soft and fluffy, but it is a scientifically-documented and powerful technique for achieving success.

For more about these areas, you may like to read our pages on Building Confidence and Positive Thinking.

2. Personal Motivation and Drive

Good leaders have good self-motivation: they have a personal sense of drive, and the skills needed to push changes and actions forward.

Self-motivation is one of the key areas of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and use your own and others’ emotions to achieve. It consists of four elements:

  • Drive, the desire to achieve or improve;
  • Commitment to goals;
  • Initiative, or willingness to act on opportunities; and
  • Optimism, the ability to continue in the face of setbacks.
There is more about this essential leadership skill in our page on Self-Motivation.

3. Integrity and Honesty

The third area of personal leadership skills is acting with integrity. This, too, is part of emotional intelligence, and encompasses trustworthiness, conscientiousness and reliability.

Those who act with integrity act in accordance with strong moral principles.

They have a strong ‘moral compass’, and this guides them to act in ways that are generally agreed to be fair and just. They can be relied on to keep their word and are conscientious about delivering on their promises. When they make a commitment, they stick to it.

The ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ question

Honest does not mean hurtful.

There are ways to give honest feedback, even about truly bad performances, that are constructive and helpful, and will be clearly heard.

They do not include giving the organisational equivalent of ‘yes’ in response to ‘Does my bum look big in this?’. This can only result in someone being hurt.

Read our pages on giving and receiving feedback and balancing politeness and honesty for more about this.

For more about leading with integrity, read our pages on Ethical Leadership, and Trustworthiness and Conscientiousness.

4. Flexibility

Change is a constant in organisational life. Good leaders need to accept it as a given, and be able to manage change on a personal basis.

The key to doing so is to be able to accept uncertainty more readily. The serenity prayer—which asks for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change those we can, and the wisdom to know the difference—offers one possible approach to this.

For more about this, see our page on Managing Personal Change.

Good leaders also need to be able to help their organisation and team to prepare for change. They must be skilled in creating and communicating a clear personal vision, and driving forward the necessary changes at organisation level.

For more about this, see our series of pages on Managing Change.

The next three skills areas are all about working with other people.

5. Communication Skills

Leaders need to be able to communicate their ideas to others. Every other aspect of leading hinges on this.

They therefore need to be highly effective speakers, but also be adept at listening and interpreting body language and other non-verbal communication, because often what is not said is at least as important as the words chosen.

For more about this, read our series of pages on Communication Skills. You may also find the Interpersonal Skills Self-Assessment helpful in identifying areas for improvement.

6. Motivation Skills

Good leaders are able to keep their teams going through both good and bad times, because of their strong motivation skills.

They understand what motivates each person—what makes them come to work each day, and keeps them at their desk—and they use that knowledge to keep everyone going. They do their best to provide interesting and challenging work, with stretching but achievable goals for each person.

This is not an easy task, and is probably one of the major challenges of any leader. It is also why being able to remain self-motivated is so important.

Read more on our page on Motivation Skills.

7. Delegation Skills

As a leader, you have to be able to delegate work effectively, because you cannot do it all yourself.

Being able to delegate work effectively is hard. It means being able to ensure that both you and person to whom you have delegated are happy about the amount of control that you each have over the work, and the work gets done. Many new managers and leaders find it hard to let go and trust others.

Knowing your team helps with delegation, as does self-awareness and an understanding of how much control you want. Perhaps most of all, you must be able to communicate effectively so that your team understand the delegation process fully.

For more, see our page on Delegation Skills.

The final three skills are about technical skills and ability to achieve in particular areas

8. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

Leadership is about taking the right decisions not the easy ones.

Theresa May

Decision-making and problem-solving skills are not only important for leaders, but for most of us on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis. We all encounter a variety of problems and decisions that need to be made on a regular basis, and have been developing the skills to handle them from our early childhood.

Some people, however, are undeniably better at these skills than others.

One way to approach them, especially if you tend to struggle with these skills, is to use a structured framework. This will guide you through the process, and it is well-known that breaking problems down into smaller steps helps to make them more manageable.

For more, see our series of pages on Decision-Making and Problem-Solving, which set out suitable frameworks for each.

9. Strategic Thinking Skills

Strategic thinking is often the area that new leaders dread most, because it is not an area in which it is easy to gain experience before taking up a leadership post. However, looked at simply, it is purely a matter of working out where you are, where you want to be, and how to get from one to the other.

Coupled with action planning, plus a good habit of reviewing decisions against your strategic goals (and reviewing your strategic goals regularly), this should set you well on the way to success in this area.
For more, see our page on Strategic Thinking skills.

10. Innovation and Creative Thinking Skills

Innovation and creative thinking skills may not be the most obvious leadership skills. However, being able to step off the treadmill and look for new ways to do something is one of the most crucial facets of leadership.

Creative thinking is about thinking in different ways, to generate new ideas. The key with many creative thinking techniques is to come up with lots of ideas on an ongoing basis. Most will be discarded, but one or two may be gems.

Innovation means being able to generate new ideas, but also put them into practice on a daily basis. We all know people with lots of ideas who never do anything except talk about them. That is not innovation: innovation requires practicality, adaptability and a willingness to experiment and fail if necessary.

For more about these two areas, see our pages on Innovation Skills and Creative Thinking Skills. You may also be interested in our page on Understanding Creative Thinking for more about how the brain works, and how you can use this to think more creatively about problems.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

Developing Skills, Developing Growth

Most leaders would be confident in saying that they do not have all these skills to perfection. They are, however, working on them.

Part of leadership is having an acceptance of the need for continuous improvement. Developing a learning (or growth) mindset is perhaps the best thing that any aspiring leader could hope to do.