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A great leader isn’t a great leader because they run their own company or department. Nor are they great because they excelled in their industry early on in their career or employed a team that fulfills all the needs of the business. All of that helps, of course, but those things just make someone a leader. What is it that makes them great?
Effective leadership is the difference between a mediocre leader and a great one. Not only that, but strong leadership creates a strong workforce — research shows one of the most common reasons employees in the US are unhappy in their jobs is due to negative management. They feel less stressed and under pressure when they’re able to engage with leaders well.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth US President, said, “When your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a true leader.” And Theodore M. Hesburgh, the President of the University of Notre Dame, said the very essence of leadership is “that you have to have a vision – you can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
Many habits distinguish average leaders from great ones; here are five of the most common.
1. They work to improve their emotional intelligence
Forget IQ – it’s all about high EI when it comes to strong leadership. This refers to emotional intelligence, which is the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others. People then use this to manage their behavior and communication.
In today’s world, leadership requires development through intentional practice and awareness, and the best leaders among us take time to invest in their own emotions and others. This means dissecting why employees might be acting or responding in different ways — and seeking to understand the reasons behind this.
It also means they’ll follow the motto of “respond, don’t react” when it comes to business decisions. They know those automatic, emotional responses to challenging situations won’t lead to the best outcomes. Instead, they’ll consider all of the information in a situation — and the needs and wants of people — then respond in time. Their decisions are not emotional ones.
2. They openly admit their mistakes
Mistakes happen to all of us, and making one isn’t a sign of poor leadership.
When a leader makes a mistake, the worst thing they can do is ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen. This sends a message to their team that they either don’t care about what’s happened, they’re completely unaware of it or it’s more important to look good than take responsibility. In turn, employees will lose trust in that leader — and eventually, they’ll lose respect, too.
A great leader will do the opposite. They’ll assess and analyze what happened. They’ll admit any errors or blunders, and their main focus will be working out what happened, what there is to learn from the experience and how it can be avoided in the future.
Many leaders will bring their employees in on these learnings, explaining why they did what they did, and moving towards improving it. Why? Because this transparency builds trust and openness with colleagues, which studies show is the foundation of many solid relationships. When you have a workplace full of strong relationships, even if mistakes are made, it leads to high employee engagement.
In fact, through learning from mistakes, leaders have the opportunity to build a more robust workforce.
3. They communicate well
Employees naturally look to a leader for a vision, direction and clarity. If a leader can’t communicate well, their employees’ performance and understanding of the company will falter. Ultimately, the business will suffer.
A big part of effective communication is active listening. When someone is talking to them, a great leader will focus on what’s being said. They’ll follow up with questions and take on board the other person’s point of view. Just because they’re a leader, it doesn’t mean they’re always right.
Active listening is an approach to communication that defuses potentially tense situations and helps seek solutions. For example, when employees say they want their voices to be heard in a company, they mean they want leaders to listen to their needs. Leaders may find it challenging to know what their employees are thinking at work, so taking the time to listen to them allows both parties to truly understand one another.
4. They have their own “toolkit” to stay calm in a crisis
Things inevitably go wrong at work, and many times, it’s unavoidable. A good leader creates their own self-care tools to deal with these situations calmly. This will vary from leader to leader, depending on their preferences.
When issues arise, they’ll reach for this dedicated “toolkit” to bring them back to what truly matters and decide how to move forward constructively. Mindfulness techniques will often occupy this toolkit when focusing on the present, rather than worrying about the past or the inevitable future.
But self-care techniques to stay calm can involve much more than that: frequent exercising, specific breathing techniques, making time for a work-life balance, a hobby that eases their mind, spending time with people they love, a yoga class or a dog walk to clear their head. Doing this is likely to put them in the right headspace to move forward effectively with a decision at work.
5. They plan — a lot.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Great leaders know this well and would never risk their chances of success by ignoring the need to plan. This means they proactively plan and organize strategies before making and implementing decisions.
As well as planning for milestone events, they’re also able to take a step back from the day-to-day tasks to make sure that overall, the business is heading in the right direction to achieve growth and success. If it isn’t, they have the opportunity to work towards meaningful changes to produce the desired result.