What does it take to be a great leader? What do you have to do to enter Fortune’s list of the 50 greatest leaders in the World?

No, I am not writing the another “definitive guide.” A quick search in amazon for “leadership” (with the filter “books” applied) reveals more than 190,000 results. So why would I lie to you and say this article is the definitive guide for leadership skills? There is much more to the topic, and what I write here are the basic skills I consider absolutely essential for being a great leader in your company.

84% of companies forecast a shortage of strong leadership for the next years. This is not because people don’t want to be leaders, but because a change of paradigm is taking place in society and the new generation doesn’t know how to be a leader. The same infographic presents the finding that most millennials do not plan to stay in the same company for more than three years. How to they expect, then, to develop solid leadership skills? The pervasive culture of immediatism is invading even those areas of life that invariably require time and experience to be developed. Although companies are considerably investing in leadership development, there is very little certainty regarding whether they are forming great leaders.

The truth is, great leaders are – to borrow a term from Buddhism – conditioned phenomena. They are born because, built by, and dependant on where they are and what they do. There is no “one type serves it all” leader: the person who is a great religious leader will probably not be a great police boss. The skills required for each position are different, and the sooner we understand that, the better. A great leader in a company might not be a great leader at home; the quiet guy from your university classes might prove to be the best leader you’ll ever work with.

So if there is no absolute framework for leadership, how can we define a great leader? Well, one suggestion is to look at how biology classifies living creatures. What we call “birds,” for example, is actually a class of animals, all of which contain similar characteristics. They generally have two wings, a beak, two legs, feathers, claws etc. Not all of them have all these characteristics, but most of them do. When we think about leaders, we should use the same reasoning: they generally have this, this, and that characteristics, but there is room for exceptions. This is why I want to discuss four crucial traits that every successful leader has. Keep in mind that we are talking about leaders in the workplace, so the characteristics here will be directed to this environment.

The Qualities of a Good Leader

What makes us great leaders? Is it being nice to people at work? Is it getting the work done within the established time and budget? Is it getting a high engagement level from your employees?

Each one is important, and successful leadership comes with learning how to foster them simultaneously. Let’s have a look at four factors I consider crucial for being a great leader.

Element #1 – Making Sure the Team is Healthy

No, I’m not talking again about biology. Making sure your team is healthy means regularly taking care of team building and interacting activities. We already saw several factors involved in building a positive environment such as active listening and effective meetings, and in the next article we will see the elements of collaborative problem solving.

The problem is: usually there is no metric to identify the health of the team or their engagement level with the project. Measures of success are usually related to tangible products or project management documents: whether you produce your Work Breakdown Structure properly, whether your Risk Management Strategy is thorough, whether you stay within time and budget, etc. etc. There is no indicator “whether your team is highly engaged in the project.” Actually, there is something even worse: high engagement is normally evaluated in terms of a member’s output. Poor output equals low levels of engagement, and a member who performs well is automatically considered engaged and happy with the workplace. There is something wrong here, no? But dealing with this fallacy is a topic for another article.

The highlight I want to make here is towards the leader: team engagement is a fundamental requirement for better outputs, but high productivity is not a synonym of high engagement. Let me give you my own example: I was once working at a government institution and taking care of several administrative tasks. I did my job, as I was supposed to, I delivered everything before the deadlines, and I always delivered “something else” – a personal contribution that made my work stand out among others. Not many days after, I was filing my resignation letter. My boss looked at me with a twisted face and said “What? You are one of the best here! Your work is really good and you rarely make mistakes! How come you are resigning?” Why did I resign? Because I was not motivated there – plus, of course, the fact that working for a government agency was not really my career goal and I wanted to experiment working for private companies. I didn’t resign because I couldn’t accomplish my goals; I resigned because, despite accomplishing them, I didn’t feel the fulfillment of contributing to the company. So even if your employees are performing well, if the team is not healthy and you don’t provide a positive environment, chances are one day they will come to you with their own resignation letters and look for a better place to work.

Element #2 – Attending the Individual Demands of the Team Members
Focus on the Individual Demands of the Team Members

This leads directly to the second point I want to highlight: attending to the demands of your members. Each person in the team is a human being, not a machine. People have goals, interests, feelings, PMS, whatever. People are different, and people become different day after day. As a leader, you must understand that you are not working with perfect people that leave their personal lives at the door when they enter your company. There is no “emotional basket” next to the umbrellas’ bucket.

Attending to the personal demands of your team members means not only understanding their emotional state but also recognizing their accomplishments and their efforts. Working hard for days without hearing any positive feedback is one of the most frustrating experiences an employee can go through. It’s your job as a leader to both recognize when someone is working harder than the average and praise this type of behavior.

Element #3 – Communicating the Goal of the Project and Maintaining the Strategic Vision

It is not uncommon to see lost team members performing disconnected tasks. If the strategic vision – how the project fits in the organization – is not brought to mind regularly, it becomes fairly easy to forget the meaning and the underlying motivation of the project’s tasks. Ok, let me give you an example to clear things up: imagine your company came up with a project to reinvent your brand. Sales are not good, people are not really connecting with your brand, so it’s time to change things. Your project involves redesigning your mission, vision, objectives, etc., and then spreading the new version of your company through a new website, your social media profiles, and your other digital channels. Since we are dealing with the redesign of a brand – a conceptual job, if you want – the underlying message and the cohesion of the information we share on social media is of paramount importance. If your social media members are not reminded of what the new brand is and how it transforms your company’s strategies, they are very likely to share suboptimal – maybe even completely irrelevant – content on your social profiles. This, in turn, will damage your online reputation instead of improving it.

This is a direct example of how the strategic vision affects the daily work of your project members. Maybe in some industries the identification of such ramifications is not that immediate, but trust me, it is there. Therefore, it is essential to regularly communicate the strategic position of your project in the organizational context

Element #4 – Building Team Relationships among Diversity

Last but not least, a leader must actively work to integrate the different backgrounds of the team members. We already discussed how important this is to creating a positive work environment, but it’s always good to remind you of the importance of a mutualistic relationship between your team.

One important realization of leaders must be that the project members are normally better than the leader at the individual tasks they are doing. While the leader must have extensive knowledge in all the areas of the project, the specificities of each part will be better known by the team members. This is a direct consequence of both diversity and specialization. Therefore, you should try to avoid posing as the “knowledge leader” and starting telling your team members they are doing everything wrong. But what if, well, people are doing things wrong and you have to tell them? You can either be straightforward and run the risk of making enemies on your team, or, if the matter is more sensitive, you can assume an indirect approach.

Here’s the trick: you don’t need to tell them they are wrong as long as you make them realize it themselves. The drill is pretty simple and involves a Socratic (yes, the philosopher) approach. Socrates was a very peculiar guy: he almost never showered, and he didn’t really care about social rules. But he had an amazing quality which made him a fundamental part of the history and development of philosophy. He questioned even the most basic assumptions of people. He’d go out on the streets and ask something like “Sup, how are you? So, I have this doubt bothering me… Is it fair to pay less to a person that works less, even if you agreed on a fixed salary?” And, after hearing the answer, he would say “well, yeah, I understand, but ok… Here’s the thing… What exactly is fairness to you?”

He would question every single concept mentioned and assumption made. Of course, this got people mad at him, and once he had collected enough enemies, they took him to court. If you want to read more about how he defended himself, you can go for the book The Apology, by Plato (the ebook can be downloaded for free on Amazon).

But anyway, coming back to team management. The way to make people realize their own mistakes is to make them explain everything to you. Start by friendly asking what they are doing and why they are doing it. And then start questioning specific parts of the job. You might even make suggestions such as “don’t you think it would be nice to try to…”, but don’t be too incisive.

The 5 Stages of Team Development and How to Approach Each of Them

In the final part of this article, I’d like to present five common stages of team development, as well as a few suggestions on how leaders can approach each of them.

The Stage of Forming the Team

Every team has a beginning, and being chosen to be a part of it is a pretty exciting experience. Why you and not the fellow colleague that sits in the cubicle? People who are part of the team are excited about what is coming up, but they are also cautious not to expose themselves too much. They usually look for common characteristics and try to integrate in the group. It’s the superficial phase of “oh you also like football? Great! What’s your team? Oh, Barcelona? Mine too!”

The leader’s role is to address this uncertainty by giving clear directions to where the project is going. Each member wants to learn their place in the collective effort, so give them that. This is the time when you lay the ground rules of the project and set your expectations.

The Storm that Comes Afterwards

Once everyone starts working, the “let’s be friends” phase ends and the “my way of doing things is better” phase starts. People in your team come from different backgrounds, and they do things differently. Conflict, therefore, is inevitable. In addition to that, people might start getting demotivated because of the great work required to complete the project, or they might start rushing too much to get things done. There is a lot of space for chaos, and this is why this phase is called “The Storm”.

This is when you leadership skills will really be tested. My suggestion? Don’t let the storm get to you. Be flexible to deal with the demands of each individual member of the team, but be strong enough to provide directions and clear instructions. Nobody wants a leader that changes his mind every time a member suggests something different. In this phase, facilitated group decisions, active listening and a fair participation rate for each member are essential for success.

The Normalization of Team Relationships

Once the storm is gone, we arrive at the norming phase. Normalizing the team activity means your members are getting in good terms with each other. They all know what they are doing, where they are required, in which decision they get to give an opinion, and so on. Hopefully, at this stage, group decision making is easier than before.

This is the moment when the leader is allowed to start delegating control. The members are aware of their position in the project, therefore they can have greater autonomy. Keep a healthy environment by encouraging opposite points of view that add to the value of the project, and focus on reviewing and improving team processes to take your team to the next level.

The United Performance Stage

This is the ultimate phase, and not every team gets here. Once your team is well aligned and the team processes are optimized, you will notice a boost in performance and engagement. The team members trust each other and they can solve conflicts by themselves, which practically removes the need of a strong, always present leader.

The leader now can focus on making sure the team works efficiently. If there are processes to improve, the leader should work together with the team to implement changes. You can even share a good part of your leadership tasks with the more prominent team members. Just keep in mind that your main focus should still be on ensuring that the project is well managed and is going in the right direction. After all, even united and well-functioning teams depend on the effective guidance from their leader to execute and conclude the project efficiently.

The Goodbye Phase

And as everything good comes to an end, so do project teams. Once people finish the job, they have to follow different paths. In an ideal world, people would all be sad that the team is being dissolved, but in reality some of them will just be glad they don’t have to see your face anymore.

As a leader, now is the time to review your team’s performance and give the final feedback with the strengths of each member and the opportunities for improvement.

Final Words

And as everything good comes to an end, so does this leadership article. Hopefully this guide helped you become a better project manager and understand some of the mechanics of being a leader. So see you in the next article!