The Seven Essential Skills to Become a Great Leader
by Dr. Peter J. Dean

The L.E.A.D.E.R.S. Method contains the essential skills necessary for any effective leader to practice. While these skills are practiced to some degree individually, it is their integration and systematic use that will result in optimum leadership ability. And, as more leaders practice the Method, leadership will be demonstrated at all levels of an organization. L.E.A.D.E.R.S. is an acronym for seven critical skills:

  1. Listen to Learn
    Leaders who listen to learn understand that true listening employs consistent eye contact, facing the speaker, avoiding distractions and waiting until the speaker is finished before responding. In business perhaps more attention needs to be paid to listening than to other components of communication since it is a key to successful exchanges. Active listening is collaborative and comprehensive: it is listening with purpose; hearing what is being said; recognizing tone of voice and mood of the person speaking; and having an open mind. In many settings, learning is achieved through listening and, in the business world, both listening and learning are prerequisites for leading.

  2. Empathize with Emotions
    This entails aligning the leader's personal feelings with those they are in contact with without letting sympathy for the other person cause a loss of objectivity. Leaders should recognize emotions by bringing them into the conversation to show that they understand. Effective approaches for achieving a level of empathy include phrases like "help me understand your concern about this matter." Empathizing with emotions helps to encourage feedback and to create a work atmosphere where disclosure by others can occur more easily. This is facilitated by seeking to understand colleagues' areas of stress, the emotions they are feeling, empathizing with the emotions, and then moving on to the content of the discussion.

  3. Attend to Aspirations
    Personal goals should be acknowledged and encouraged in order for aspirations to thrive in a positive climate. Aspirations, which are strong desires or ambition for advancement, are generated from within and drive us to act. Leaders know that attending to aspirations is important because it encourages productivity by helping others grow. In an exclusionary environment, it is easy for individuals to go about their jobs without aspiring to improve themselves or their situations. It is important for each organization to be clear about its vision, mission and values so that employees can express their personal aspirations and understand where they fit in.

  4. Diagnose and Detail
    A leader must have the skills to diagnose and detail the facts in any conversation in order to avoid wrong assumptions and undesirable conclusions. There are several levels of diagnosis to be considered - from the philosophical and cultural, through policy and strategic, and finally to the tactical and logistical levels. There are many questions to be asked in looking for the details necessary to make good decisions, and it is important to shape them in a way that avoids negative response or causes silence. The optimum framework for questions allows for issues of complexity, emotion, motivation and ability to emerge.

  5. Engage for Good Ends
    Leadership entails selecting the right course of action in planning, decision making, and business practice to help bring the best overall results for the company while adhering to ethical standards. While each of us has a right to think and act in our own self-interest, it is not the thinking and action of a true leader. Operating from the premise that creating and maintaining an ethical environment ought to be within the mission of an effective organization, as well as being good business practice, leaders should address ethical concerns in a straightforward manner without fear of reprisal. Specifically, ethical practices include the three main categories: integrity and justice; prudence, competence and productivity; and fortitude and responsibility.

  6. Respond with Respectfulness
    Respectful leaders honor the worth and dignity of individuals, are sensitive to power differences, and resolve conflicts with honesty and patience. They are also concerned with rights to privacy, confidentiality and self-direction. They are aware of the potential conflict between certain legal obligations such as compliance policies and procedures, and the exercise of individual rights. When conflict does occur among stakeholders' obligations, concerns and rights, leaders must attempt to resolve these conflicts with respectfulness, eliminating or minimizing any harm to others.

  7. Speak with Specificity
    Speaking reveals leadership skills as well as the personal power and sphere of influence one has in an organization. The three elements of speaking, verbal, vocal and visual, create a climate of credibility and confidence for a leader. When a leader is a skilled speaker, he or she can elicit attention, relay ideas, provide order and direction, solve problems, persuade, and build trust. A lasting take-away thought or idea comes by way of a speaker-designed residual message that carries emphasis and requires preparation and skill. To be more successful as a leader, one must hone and develop speaking skills.

Learning to manage the flow of emotions, moods and ego during exchanges is the foundation for authentic communication, and a powerful tool to be used in everyday interactions, from formal meetings to one-on-one conversations. By leaving ego and emotions at the door, an individual is positioned as a genuine leader who instills confidence in those around him or her.

Using these seven essential skills, leadership is not restricted to positions of authority or stature and can, in fact, be practiced by individuals acting within their sphere of influence without being labeled as leaders. A powerful organization has a broad spectrum of those who can be defined as "leaders." Nearly everyone can lead, whether an entry-level employee, a productive sales advisor, or a vice-president negotiating on behalf of the company.

The opportunity for practicing everyday leadership is fueled by the speed of change. Our global society is experiencing an ever-increasing rate of change in the areas of technology, economics, politics, social factors, knowledge, and systematic thinking. There is change not only within these categories, but because of the interaction and crossover among categories, and the expectation is that the rate of change will continue to increase.

The difficulty of any change is that it is likely to be extremely complex, and is certain to tax the attention, intelligence, powers, and will of anyone interested in initiating and managing transformation. Change requires an honest articulation of fresh visions of the future, and that vision can come from virtually any level of an organization.

When individuals practice good leadership skills and acknowledge change, the entire organization benefits. Management is easier when leadership resides throughout all organizational levels with each person utilizing his or her sphere of influence in a positive way. These skills allow individuals to develop expertise earlier in their careers and demonstrate greater productivity, resulting in a more enjoyable and positive work environment. People can be excited about going to their place of employment because they are developing their repertoire of leadership skills. By allowing leadership skills to develop early, both the individual and the company grow and profit.

Dr. Peter J. Dean, President of Leaders By Design, the leadership development and coaching firm, has served as an international coach and consultant for many Fortune 500 and other companies worldwide. He currently holds the O. Alfred Granum Chair in Management at The American College, where he is a Management and Leadership Professor. He is a lecturer on Communication, Ethics and Leadership at The Wharton School, and on Leadership in the Public Domain at the Fels Center of Government, both at The University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Learning Psychology and Human Resource Management from the University of Iowa, a Masters of Science in Organizational Dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelor of Science in Business from Morningside College. Visit for additional information.

Dr. Dean's eighth book, Leadership for Everyone, was published by McGraw-Hill in September 2005.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Peter J. Dean. All rights reserved.

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