Starting a business is hard. But developing these leadership qualities will give you a chance of survival
In addition to dealing with a million things on their plate at any given time, first-time business owners also need to learn to be managers for when their company starts growing—including all the leadership qualities that come with it.
Some people are born leaders. Guiding, inspiring and helping other people succeed is their forte without even lifting a pinky finger. They have a natural personality, intuition, and general gusto for it.
For others, being a leader is a land far less explored, and their personality isn’t naturally matched for the job.
However, not being a natural leader doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader.
When it comes to managing any number of people, there are so many variables involved that any “textbook” solution is probably going to let you down in the long run.
It’s a trial-and-error position, and all you can do is grasp the most important basics, and build your own style as you go.
Good leaders—CEOs, managers, founders, etc—have a set of skills and qualities just like any other job.
All you need to do is make yourself familiar with these characteristics, and you can start practicing as soon as you onboard your first employee.
Today, we’re going to talk about the 5 most important leadership qualities that anyone in a management position should develop—and that are moldable to most situations you’ll face when in a leadership position.
Why is leadership difficult?
Leadership is something certain people—a lot of people—crave.
Because by default, any position that comes with the responsibility of running a business and/or managing other people, is mostly associated with power, being known, and being respected—and not necessarily with the hard work that comes with it.
The official term for people who want to be a leader, or just to be a business owner for the sake of it, is a wantrepreneur.
These people have seen all the success stories out there, and they want the same. They want to be the next big household name in any given industry, and they want it now. They keep talking about how amazing it’s going to be… without doing much about it.
They think that they can achieve anything—which is, admittedly, a good way to think—but they are way more focused on their own personal vision (mostly sitting in their $3mil beach house they bought with the massively successful company they sold to ACME corp.) without paying much attention to what it really takes to get there.
The differentiators between wantrepreneurs and real entrepreneurs are:
- Wantrepreneurs are not passionate about the business side of things.
- Wantrepreneurs do not, for the most part, understand the work that goes into building a successful business.
- Wantrepreneurs are not willing to make sacrifices.
- Wantrepreneurs refuse to accept accountability. For anything.
- Wantrepreneurs do not take proper action (or risks)—they just talk about doing it.
- Wantrepreneurs are only focused on the results, not the process that it takes to get there.
- Wantrepreneurs are all about the ego—themselves, their goals, and their dreams.
Basically, wantrepreneurs are all bark and no bite.
Being an entrepreneur is a whole other ordeal.
Entrepreneurs see the whole picture.
They’re focused on the vision they’ve created, sure, but they also understand the work that goes into it, and also how it affects other people. It’s not about them. A good leader completely removes their ego from any sort of equation.
That includes dealing with employees.
An entrepreneur, for the most part, will end up being a manager and a leader.
An entrepreneur also realizes the effect the business will have on the people they manage and lead, and what their contribution really means.
An entrepreneur understands that once they start hiring, there will be people whose lives are very much in their hands.
And, and entrepreneur will do their best to walk the delicate rope between working hard and being productive, and keeping the people they lead sane, happy, and motivated.
You need to have a vision, that’s granted. But to get there, you need a lot more.
You will have to give away a chunk of yourself to get to that vision—for the people that help you get there.
Here are the leadership qualities you need to consider and keep in mind, whether you have 1 employee or 100.
Leadership quality 1: Decisiveness
Ideally, you will hire people who are comfortable making smaller decisions on their own.
However, there are certain decisions that need to be made by the leader.
Now, the complicated thing about leadership decisions (those are the big ones) is that it’s not just you dealing with the aftermath. In any business, there are usually employees, stakeholders, partners, etc. to consider when deliberating anything.
That means that key decision making involves several target groups, all with different motives, visions, and hopes—and all of them need to be considered. Considered—but that can’t mean the decision being delayed. Most decisions need to be made ASAP.
Making a difficult decision usually means that someone will get the short end of the stick.
Making difficult decisions also means that you will not necessarily always be loved.
However, as long as you deal with the situation with integrity and respect towards everyone involved, and as long as everyone feels like their opinion or side has been taken into consideration, it’ll soften the blow.
You need to be able to carefully (yet quickly) consider all sides of the story, prioritize, and do it well. And then stick with it.
Even if you do end up making a bad call just because you had to make one, raising your hand and admitting it is still a better case scenario than flopping around for ages and not being able to do anything.
Your employees will respect you more if you get things done, even if it’s not always to their benefit.
Tips for practicing this skill:
- Include stakeholders of any decision in the conversation, but don’t let their personal points of view sway you too much—they’re out for themselves, which makes sense, but you have to make the best decision for the whole company (and its customers).
- Make sure your team members know their opinion matters, always.
- Come up with a system to evaluate issues quickly and efficiently—something based on a simple SWOT matrix might help.
Leadership quality 2: Honesty
When someone starts to work for you, they are also making a conscious decision to trust you.
They are willing to take their time (whether it’s all of their work hours or some of them) and dedicate it to helping your vision happen.
Your employees taking a piece of themselves and committing to you deserves nothing less than you doing the same.
Business owners—much like politicians—get a bad rep when it comes to honesty. They are often seen as the face of the company who needs to keep a big smile on even when things are going south, and the employees are the last to know.
This will come back to bite you in the ass.
Business is tricky. There is a lot of competition and uncertainty involved with any industry.
You, as a leader, need to be absolutely, 100%, completely straight up about everything going on, good or bad.
As a leader, your employees look to you to set their own standards and ethics. They will treat you the way you treat them and if you’re not going to be transparent, they won’t be, either. If your employees feel like they can’t be honest with you, you’ll be putting out very big fires very soon.
Honesty doesn’t only relate to giant happenings like your company going bankrupt—it should be an everyday practice that flows through all communication in your company.
Your employees are putting so much of themselves into your vision, that you owe it to them to let them know what’s going on with a tremendous part of their life—their job.
And in return, they will be honest with you—whether it’s about that new ugly-ass logo, or their burnout, or the track the business is taking. Take the time to chat with your employees alone and hear them out.
One-on-ones especially made a giant difference in our culture, and there isn’t enough space here to explain how important it is to have them—and have them in a non-judgemental, open way.
Nipping any issue in the bud is always easier, and if you cultivate a culture of honesty and constant conversation in your business, you will be able to track down problems before they even happen—because nobody’s holding back.
Tips for practicing this skill:
- Encourage honesty on all levels of the company, whether the communication is horizontal or vertical.
- Keep your team updated about what’s going on in the business side of the company with a weekly/monthly/quarterly update.
- Communicate big changes, threats or news immediately and start a conversation about how people feel about it.
- Have regular one-on-ones with your team members to give them the chance to communicate anything they’re unsure about.
Leadership quality 3: Humility
There are many aspects to humility as a general characteristic, but the main one that comes with leadership is knowing and admitting that you don’t know everything.
This ties into one of the main characteristics of an entrepreneur we mentioned before—putting aside your ego.
In layman’s terms—you have to learn to get the hell over yourself.
You don’t have all the answers. You are not the most important person. If you think you do or are, you’re wrong.
When you hire people, you’re most likely hiring them for a job that you can’t do (because if you could, then you’d do it yourself, right?).
Ideally, you will hire people who are a lot smarter than you—when it comes to what they do. They might not be the CEO or the owner, but they are hella experienced in their respective area, and they know best.
This doesn’t mean that they should have complete control—discussion still needs to happen—but you need to accept that you have to take the opinion of someone who is an expert in their field very seriously.
It doesn’t matter how many hipster design magazines you’ve read, your UX designer knows better.
No matter how many blogs you’ve read, your content person knows better.
No matter how long you worked at as a bartender when you were 16, your support agent knows better.
Micromanaging kills companies, and the worst thing for any talented individual is feeling like their expertise isn’t respected, recognized, or utilized.
You need to let people do what they’re best at, and trust their judgment. Be modest about your knowledge and skills.
Hire good, smart, talented people, get out of their way, and let them shine.
Tips for practicing this skill:
- Ask for feedback from your team, and encourage them to be honest about it.
- Start with questions, not solutions.
- Admit your weak points openly and strive to learn from people who fill the gaps in your skillset.
Leadership quality 4: Empathy
Empathy is something we’ve talked a lot about when it comes to customer support—it’s one of the main characteristics that support agents need to succeed.
When it comes to customer support, we define empathy as a customer getting the feeling that they’re doing business with a person, not a company.
That means the support agent understands the customer and what they want, rather than giving everybody the same robotic, generic service.
This needs to apply between a leader and their followers, too.
Your employees are not chess pieces. They’re people with real-life problems, dreams, concerns, and motivations.
You need to get to know them as individuals who are driven, scared, and moved by very different things.
Take the time to have conversations with the people who work for you. Learn about their life, who they are, what they do in their spare time, and who the people dearest to them are. Learn to respect them for who they are outside of your grand plan.
Learning about the people who have sacrificed a lot of time for your cause will help you understand, support and guide them much more easily when they’re facing a roadblock or hitting a wall.
Nobody wants to feel neglected, misunderstood, or disregarded as a person. The personalized support you can offer when you learn to focus on the needs and feelings of your individual team members will mean more to your team than you could ever know.
Tips for practicing this skill:
- Have regular 1:1-s with your team members and start a conversation about topics outside of work.
- Encourage your employees to share their personal wins, losses, and news with the team.
- Listen without thinking about what you need to say next.
- Don’t judge—you’re not learning and listening to disagree or argue, but to understand.
Leadership quality 5: Accountability
You probably want your employees to practice accountability—feeling responsible for their own work, actions, words, and results. Right?
You have to do that, too.
Good leaders don’t complain. They don’t find excuses. They certainly don’t try and blame things on other people.
One of the most important things you’ll have to learn is swallowing your pride and accepting when you’ve messed up.
Actually—not even when just you’ve necessarily messed up. If one of your employees, stakeholders, or partners messed up. Because you were there, and inevitably, you carry at least some of the blame, too. The buck stops with you.
Pointing fingers achieves nothing, and respect is more easily earned by putting your hand up and taking the blame, whether you were the sole offender or not.
By doing this, you’ll also be a role model for your employees, which will help them do the same.
Until you take responsibility, you’ll be a victim, whether you’re doing it deliberately or not—and that’s the exact opposite of how a good leader should feel or act.
Instead of concentrating necessarily on whose fault something is—because in the end, it doesn’t really matter—a productive leader will focus on the solution.
Tips for practicing this skill:
- Learn to control negative emotions—anger, resentment and harboring will not help anything or anyone.
- Learn the phrase “I’m sorry.” Use it.
- When an issue arises, instead of only focusing on whodunit, think about possible solutions and action plans, and ask for feedback.
Use these leadership qualities to build your dream
Leading people isn’t easy.
Soft skills like those we’ve mentioned in this post can seem like hardly a priority when you’ve got a business to run and money to make. Most of them can be seen as more of a reputation issue, and many people don’t think they have time for that.
However, you’re not practicing these skills to just be nice or be liked by people—that’s a brownie point. You’re practicing them because ultimately it will help you get better results from your team.
And, remember, that team—the people who are helping you get to your vision—are the real stars of the show. Without them, your dreams simply aren’t attainable.
The least you can do is try to be a better leader to them every single day.
What are the most important leadership skills for you?