In these difficult days of the pandemic, the visibility of leadership in business, as well as in politics, seems to be at an all-time low.
In my view as a business adviser, it's an ideal time for aspiring entrepreneurs and small-business owners to get ahead of the crowd by driving an innovative solution to a painful problem with the passion, perseverance, and work ethic I see every day.
Some people are convinced that leadership is a character trait that you must be born with, but I see it more as a mindset and a set of skills that you can develop and learn from experiences and relationships in business, both positive and negative.
Here is my list of the most critical skills that I look for in entrepreneurs who are likely to lead their businesses, and themselves, to success:
1. Focus on change and learning as a key to leadership.
People I meet who think they have all the answers usually fail at leadership. We all live in a world of constant change, and "the way things have always worked" probably won't work tomorrow. I'm convinced that the most important thing you can learn in school, or any job, is to learn how to learn.
Successful entrepreneur leaders, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, are noted for taking deep dives into new technologies, and reading new books every week to stretch their minds, even though they already have a range of knowledge far beyond their peers.
2. Pay attention to the words and actions of your team.
Real listening is a leadership skill that's more valuable than being a great orator. Without listening, you can never learn from your team and others, and by talking too quickly or too much, you will shut down positive contributions before you ever hear them and never see real innovations.
The keys to being a good listener and observer include letting other know you are listening through facial expressions and acknowledgement, not interrupting or trying to talk when others are speaking, and repeating back clearly what you have been told.
3. Tell people where you want to go, not how to get there.
In business, this is called "communication," rather than giving orders. It's not a difficult skill to learn, but it takes practice and discipline to do it effectively. Often, it helps to use storytelling to make the message more memorable or allow others to relate your and their needs.
It has to start with people understanding your vision and values, seeing through your actions that you are committed to the same, and transparently asking them to help get you there. Giving orders does not build trust or commitment and precipitates pushback.
4. Sustain motivation and loyalty by giving credit to others.
Recognition of internal contributions can be as simple as a public "thank you," or as formal as a promotion or equity sharing. It does require sensitivity and engagement with the people around you, as well as your customers. Don't be reluctant to seek and recognize help from others.
External customer loyalty and motivation used to be as simple as good customer service, but today's customers expect more. They look for a memorable total experience, from a quality product and a positive shopping experience to an easy return or exchange policy.
5. Recognize that negotiation is an art as well as a skill.
Learn how to make every negotiation a win-win, rather than a win-lose event. Make sure your negotiations are never perceived as manipulating, but about explaining to the other party the benefits of your proposal to both of you. This can be learned by imagining yourself in their shoes.
In the business world, we all win some battles and lose others. We all must learn to deal with the frustration and discouragement associated with the lost battles and to prioritize the important ones to become more effective in all our negotiation efforts.
6. Spend more time coaching and mentoring your team.
If people really believe that your success as a leader is tied to their own success, they will follow you anywhere. They must be inspired by your coaching to create a better future for everyone. Effective coaching always involves helping make new connections for relationships and learning.
In my view, starting and growing a business is the ideal place to learn and practice leadership. The same principles can then be applied and extended to make you a leader in your community, industry organizations, or government politics.
Today more than ever, we need more leaders and fewer critics. You are all well-positioned to make an impact. It's a lot more satisfying then following the crowd.