To Build Leadership Skills, Practice Makes Perfect

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Many people would love to be in a leadership position. After all, it's way more fun to call the shots for a business than it is to do all the grunt work, right? Not everyone feels comfortable with the complexities of effective leadership. If you feel like a fish out of water as a small-business owner, take heart: You can hone your leadership skills and feel more at ease with your new responsibilities.

Even if you don't feel like a natural-born leader, you likely do possess some leadership skills already. For example, you may have a knack for conflict mediation even though you've never received formal training. Still, you can build on your natural tangible and soft skills while also practicing the leadership qualities that feel more foreign.

You don't have to tackle all of your weaknesses at once. Focus on improving one skill this week and then add another skill to your radar next week. Over time, you'll steadily increase the quality of your leadership skills without feeling overwhelmed by the process.

1. Always Keep Your Word

People who constantly drop the ball, show up late or don't deliver on their promises are liabilities, not leaders. Fortunately, plenty of opportunities exist every day to prioritize and practice this leadership skill. Meet deadlines, show up to meetings on time, follow up when you say you will and don't commit to a promise you can't keep. Develop your time management skills, organizational skills and discipline until the word "sorry" has virtually disappeared from your vocabulary.

That's not to say that you need to be perfect all the time. It's OK to need a deadline extension or to get stuck in traffic as long as you communicate the change as quickly as possible. When you're a leader, other people rely on you. Acknowledge that responsibility by maintaining open communication, especially when there's a change of plans.

In other words, lead by example. Your employees will not take you seriously if they view you as a hypocrite. If you expect people to show up on time or meet deadlines, you need to hold yourself to the same standard. The same goes for modeling any kind of attitude and behavior you wish to see in your employees.

2. Get Comfortable With Your Fear

Fear and anxiety are complicated emotions that often lie to us. If you find yourself struggling to step into a leadership role due to worries or nerves, it's time to cozy up to your fear. Step out of your comfort zone constantly in both your professional and personal life. Fear will have less and less control over your life as a result.

For example, if you often hesitate to speak up during meetings because you worry your ideas will sound silly, strive to talk as soon as you start doubting your contribution next time. Instead of letting those feelings of anxiety tell you "no," let them tell you "yes, try that!" Stepping out of your comfort zone like this is often the best way to learn and practice new skills, and it can also help you uncover additional strengths and weaknesses.

Like life, leadership is full of awkward moments, so it's best to embrace them early on and learn how to handle your fear with courage and grace.

3. Know When to Say "No"

Strong leaders rely on critical thinking and problem solving as the basis for their decision making, and as such, they don't feel guilty about saying "no" if that's the logical conclusion they've reached. They don't hesitate to voice unpopular opinions or point out potential problems. Group-think and peer pressure hold no sway over a leader.

Others may have trouble acknowledging the leadership of a "people pleaser." They may even try to manipulate or take advantage of your desire to make everyone happy. If you tend to say "yes" when put on the spot, get into the habit of saying, "Let me think about it and get back to you." Don't forget to follow up without prompting since leaders keep their word.

4. Admit When You Don't Understand

You're knowledgeable but not about everything. Leaders know that admitting their ignorance isn't a sign of weakness. Instead, asking questions or deferring to a subject-matter expert shows an awareness of one's limitations and a willingness to learn. Actively listening to others or seeking their advice reassures employees that your ego doesn't run the show.

In addition, excellent leaders recognize when someone else is in a better position to lead due to experience, knowledge or skills. You may be the ceremonial leader responsible for dispensing the information, but most of the decision making may occur jointly with an adviser. For example, if you weren't sure which precautions to take regarding COVID-19 when the first cases were reported in the United States, you may have had a medical adviser take the lead behind the scenes even though you spoke directly to your employees about the situation.

If you're not known for your humility, it's time to start admitting what you don't know. When you catch yourself bluffing, stop and ask for clarification. Rather than undermining your leadership dreams, opening yourself up to new information while also being a little bit vulnerable will help you practice being a leader. Leaders aren't expected to know everything, but they are expected to gather sufficient information for making a well-informed decision.

5. Be Willing to Teach Others

Effective leaders know that "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Instead of firing anyone who seems to be struggling, leaders educate and mentor the team members who need a little help. They recognize that businesses rely on employees, and they're willing to bring those employees to their full potential. True leaders want to create new leaders rather than pushing everyone else down.

You can practice this effective leadership skill by simply staying alert for any opportunities to teach someone something new. If someone on your team admits that he's struggling to efficiently use a new software program, schedule a time to give a tutorial. If a new employee is having trouble adapting to your company's processes, give him a few pointers (and consider having the orientation manual updated as well).

Take care to not come across as condescending when you teach others. Remain positive and upbeat and recognize when someone doesn't really want your input. Show that you're willing to give advice or teach practical skills but don't force someone to be your mentee if he's not enthusiastic about the opportunity.

6. Practice Listening and Communicating

Great leaders know they have to listen to other people's concerns, knowledge and opinions in order to make well-informed decisions. However, there's a difference between absorbing information and making someone feel heard. Leaders accomplish the latter through active listening and effective communication. Fortunately, you have ample opportunities to hone this skill set every single day.

Start by making eye contact with everyone with whom you speak during the day, including the folks who take your coffee order. Eye contact represents just one important aspect of your body language that helps other people feel like they have your full attention. Display open body language as well by keeping your shoulders back. Turning away from a speaker, even while maintaining eye contact, signals that you're ready to leave the conversation, so avoid doing so until you verbally end the conversation first.

Active listening also involves confirming your understanding of what the speaker is saying. Check your comprehension by repeating back the main points. If you haven't fully grasped the speaker's meaning, she'll have a chance to clarify. Hone your own communication skills too by choosing more precise words and explicitly stating your expectations regarding deadlines and action items.

7. Learn How to Motivate

The best leaders seem to effortlessly inspire and motivate people to do their best. Although you can (and should) read entire books on the subject from successful leaders, understanding how to keep your employees happy is key to motivating them. Few people can feel energized and inspired in their job when they lack the necessary tools, feel unappreciated by their employer or worry about job security. Meet your team's basic needs before you start practicing Oscar-worthy motivational speeches.

8. Train in Conflict Mediation

Leaders are no strangers to conflict, but the best leaders stand out thanks to their ability to efficiently resolve conflicts and keep projects moving ahead. It's best to get hands-on practice with this leadership skill. Even if you study different conflict-resolution strategies, your emotional responses may surprise you once you're actually tasked with calming down angry or frustrated co-workers. Therefore, schedule a time to have a conflict-mediation leadership training for yourself and senior employees.

9. Evaluate Situations in Hindsight

Did you know Benjamin Franklin would reflect on his behavior throughout the previous week and make notes on how to improve in the future? Every aspiring leader can benefit from following Franklin's example and evaluate situations in hindsight. If needed, allow enough time to pass for you to no longer get emotionally riled up about the situation. Then, put on your critical thinking cap and rate yourself honestly.

Self-reflection is an excellent way to learn from both your mistakes and your victories. You would never try to grow your business without gathering and analyzing data. Why should you rely solely on your gut for evaluating your personal and professional growth?

If you had a successful day or week, think about what went well and why. What could you have done to be a better leader? Write down your new goals: "Next time [insert scenario here], I will [insert response here]." Remember, as much as you try to influence people, at the end of the day, you can only control yourself and your reactions.

10. Study the Leadership Skills of Others

To truly understand what it takes to be a leader, learn as much as you can about people who have already gained a reputation as the good leader you want to be. Look for common threads as you read different leaders' stories, such as a devotion to a daily schedule, a positive attitude or a specific method for handling conflict. Choose a role model and strive to practice his leadership style.

As you research different leaders, keep in mind that some successful business leaders may have followed methods with which you're not comfortable or that won't work for your small business. For example, Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King Jr. were both seen as leaders, but they used vastly different leadership styles (authoritarian vs. transformational).

However, you can learn helpful tips and tricks from all kinds of leaders, even ones that use vastly different strategies. Never pass up an opportunity to learn another person's approach to leadership. The worst that can happen is that you'll confirm your own beliefs. At best, you'll grow into an even stronger leader.

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About the Author

Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.