This paper discusses the importance of leadership skills in a variety of different settings and circumstance. A list of traits that are commonly associated with effective leadership is defined and described followed by a brief discussion regarding the acquisition and enhancement of these skills. Finally, there is a discussion of the application of leadership skills as they relate specifically to sports and counseling as those areas are of personal and professional interest to the author.
The honor of serving as captain of the women’s tennis team has allowed me to recognize and improve my natural leadership skills. It has also challenged me to develop and foster new abilities in this area. I am always aware that my team looks to me for guidance and direction; I am an example both in my words and my actions. As a result of this awareness, I have learned to persist in my efforts and strive to always provide an atmosphere of support and enthusiasm. Attitude is everything; keeping the girls excited, positive and focused is what leads to success. I have found that I am more capable than I once imagined and with the right leadership and support members of my team are able to reach the highest level of their potential. The result of this persistence and ability has already led to the most success our team has experienced in ten years. Great leadership skills are not only beneficial when in leadership positions however, these skills can be applied in many settings. Effective leading can change the course and outcome for a sports team, a company, and an individual. Whether you are Captain of the tennis team, President of Sears and Roebuck, parent of a stubborn teenager or embarking upon a career in counseling, it is invaluable to assess your own leadership skills and endeavor to build upon those skills.
Leaders are usually easy to identify and most people can name a handful of such people either in their own lives or within the context of culture or history. However, there seems to be considerable variation when trying to define the characteristics of a great leader or when learning how to become a better leader. This paper explores the most commonly cited characteristics of great leaders and offers discussion on how to foster these skills, it also examines the potential utilization of these skills in different settings, specifically in sports and the counseling profession.
Leadership from a Dancing Guy, a short video on the starting of a movement, offers a beginning point in the effort to understand the art of leading (Sivers 2010). At a music festival in Washington, a happy shirtless guy stands on a hillside and begins to dance, waving his arms and legs in the most absurd way as the narrator describes the first key of effective leadership, “A leader needs the guts to stand alone and look ridiculous.” In less than a minute another guy joins him and begins to mimic his movements. The first guy welcomes him by moving toward him, smiling and matching some of his movements. “Be public. Be easy to follow and remember the importance of nurturing your fellow followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you.” He goes on to talk about how leadership can be over-glorified and to not forget the importance and nature of the role of followers. So as the dancing guy teaches us, the most important leadership skill is recognizing and nurturing relationships because there is no leading if no one is following.
It is a common misconception that leaders are born not made. There are certain qualities of personality and character that seem more natural for some people however most of the skills and abilities of effective leadership can be learned. There is a large body of research on leadership skills and this research varies considerably in terms of identifying exactly which combination of skills serves to create a great leader, likely because there is considerable variation among people in leadership roles and what makes them effective. There are traits however which are commonly cited; a positive attitude, personal integrity, warmth, competence, humility, confidence, and great communication skills. It could be argued that some of these skills are innate, according to the research however; there are a number of ways to improve and expand upon each of them.
Enthusiasm is consistently cited as an essential skill and one that I personally use as team captain. According to Roebuck (1999), “Enthusiasm is the foundation of motivation” (p. 25). Leaders have an amazing amount of power because the people around them typically look to them for guidance and direction. It is necessary to exude a positive attitude (even if you do not always feel it) because a positive attitude can make a difference. There is ample research on the topic of learning to be more optimistic, far more than can be explored here. The book, The Science of Optimism and Hope goes into great detail about teaching optimism through changing cognitions (Seligman 2000). The authors discuss how shaping thoughts can shape experience. Optimism is not about pretending everything is wonderful all of the time, it is about seeing the world realistically but looking for the positive in everything.
According to Maxwell (2007), “Character makes trust possible. And trust makes leadership possible” (p. 57). Character communicates consistency, potential, and respect. Integrity is not necessarily something we learn, it is something we choose. When faced with choices in life, the learned ability may be as simple as stopping and considering the implications and possible outcome of a decision. A person needs to feel that they are being led by someone they can trust.
In his book, Exceeding Expectations, Bill Looney state that “Leaders who do genuinely embrace empathy will not only exceed their followers' expectations but will engender a commitment like no other” (p. 96). Being warm and empathetic is key in developing a relationship and relationship is a foundational component of leadership. In the 21 irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Maxwell 2007), the author states, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care (p. 101). He goes on to say that in order to connect with others, you need to know yourself, be genuine, get to know people, and focus on them not yourself. Believe in other people and offer hope.
“Leaders have to deliver. There is no substitute for performance.” (p. 113). People will do what they see. A leader must be willing to take responsibility and practice what they preach. They must set a good example and be willing to take on the same challenges and accept the same risks as their followers (Looney 2009). The reason for this is obvious; no one wants to follow someone who doesn’t appear to know what they are doing. Competence comes from experience and persistence.
There is a misconception that a person in a position of leadership has all of the answers, actually, the opposite seems to be true. Humility is one of the most commonly cited leadership skills. Maxwell (2007) believes that “Successful leaders are learners. And the learning process is ongoing, a result of discipline and perseverance” (p. 27). He goes on to say, “I believe the bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves, but how far we advance others” (p. 43). Again this brings it back to the relationship. Humility is a beautiful quality in anyone which is why it is valuable as a leadership skill. In his book, General Bill Looney (2009) says humility is a basic component and it begins by not taking yourself too seriously and being able to admit your mistakes. Humility is also a choice, a willingness to reflect on yourself in an honest way and a willingness to learn and grow.
Confidence is another trait which is commonly misunderstood. It does not mean that you have all of the answers or that you are flawless. It means that you feel good about who are and believe that you are capable, often that means that if you don’t have the answer you trust in your ability to find it or if something goes wrong you trust yourself to set it right. Confidence is a skill that can be fostered over time and in many different ways. In one book on leadership skills, the author has a great deal to say on improving confidence. He encourages a person to begin by assessing their skills honestly (Stalk 1999). He goes on; set goals, take risks, associate with confident people, dress and look your best always, challenge yourself and feel proud of your accomplishments, look people in the eye, treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect, see failure as a learning opportunity, develop the habit of positive self-talk, focus on what you want, not what you do not want, take full responsibility for your life, set your own standards “By setting internal standards, you will be comparing you to you,” (p. 19) be prepared, plan well and develop time management skills.
The ability to communicate effectively is a fundamental component in leadership and the one that connects all of the other characteristics into a cohesive whole. No trait can be effective or appreciated if it cannot be communicated. This includes the ability to articulate and express ideas, expectations, and appreciation. But beyond that, the ability to listen seems to be equally if not more valuable than the ability to speak. Effective listening skills include the ability to; ask open-ended questions, paraphrase, and summarize (Stalk 1999).
In further exploring the skills of communication, Michael Marquardt (2005) discusses the importance of questions as an essential tool. In his book, he states that successful leaders know that they cannot get the right answer without asking the right questions. He goes on to talk about how the language we use and the questions asked send messages about the entire culture and the relationships of an organization. The art of asking the right questions can be studied in depth but as a starting point, the author suggests asking questions from a sincere desire to learn, a position of curiosity and an openness to the response. This idea is closely related to the previous discussion of both humility and relationships and is an important and repeating facet of developing leadership skills.
In terms of applying leadership skills in the world, it is clear that these skills can be useful in many settings. For the purpose of this paper, there are two areas of particular interest; sports and counseling.
In an article about women’s leadership styles in sports, the authors (Brown and Light 2012) interviewed several women in top leadership positions to gain a better understanding of their particular approach. They found the use of nurturing, open communication, and collaborative strategies to be common. This inclusive approach to leading focuses on sharing power and information and enhancing the self-worth of team members using enthusiasm and creative challenges to energize others. Although there are similarities between what is considered to be masculine and feminine leadership styles, this research showed that women tend toward this more dynamic and relational approach with a great deal of success. The authors added that in spite of the tendency toward harmony, these women were not afraid to cause an upset if it was necessary in order to achieve the best outcome. They also found that a commonality among these women was the experience of having played highly competitive sports while growing up and most of them were influenced by positive relationships with their fathers who were also in leadership positions.
In light of a personal interest in counseling as a possible field of study, I found it interesting to consider the use of leadership skills in that particular field. Surprisingly there is considerable overlap. In an article about leadership skills in counseling, the authors discuss the following skills of leadership roles; effectively communicating and creating “shared meanings,” trust, positive self-regard, inspiring a shared vision, encouraging others to make valuable contributions and celebrating those contributions (Derek et al 2006). As a counselor, it is important to create shared meaning and vision as well as an atmosphere of trust in order to be effective. As expected, however, the most important skill utilized by counselors is effective communication, specifically listening skills. Above all, a client needs to feel that they are being listened to and understood and that requires a specific ability to listen well. Feeling understood and cared about supports the most important element of successful counseling which is the therapeutic relationship. Carl Rogers (1980) a central figure in the counseling field says the most important elements of successful counseling are; genuineness which he describes as the therapist bringing themselves to the relationship, acceptance, and empathy.
Developing leadership skills is beneficial to every area of life whether you are a team captain, a manager, or a professional in any field. These skills are about more than leading, they are about success; about living boldly, intentionally, and purposefully; There are many qualities and characteristics that define great leadership and not everyone can or should approach learning these skills in the same way. It is important to first gain an understanding of common skills and accurately and honestly assess your own abilities. Everyone has different strengths and different challenges. There is a great deal of research on these skills and how to begin to build upon them. In reviewing the literature, it is also apparent that successful leadership has a foundation in building and fostering relationships. Whether you are leading your team to victory or guiding a client through a difficult decision, it is essential that you are trusted and that you provide an atmosphere in which they feel valued.
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