Everyone can be a better leader. Here’s how.

January 30, 2023 Matthew Wright
“Good leadership is not about doing more,” says leadership expert Dr. Suzanne Peterson. “You just need to do a few things differently.”

Not everyone wants to be a CEO, but almost everyone aspires to be a better leader in some aspect of their lives. Many aim to manage a great team or climb the corporate ladder all the way to the executive ranks. Others may simply want to lead in their communities or be a better parent. The challenge, of course, is how to actually get there.

All sorts of perfectly valid leadership models exist, says Dr. Suzanne Peterson, an associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. The problem with so many of these models is that they leave people wondering what practical steps to take. It’s a challenge Suzanne sees many leaders struggle with in her work as an executive coach. 

“So, you want to be a servant, an authentic, or an inspirational leader,” she says, “but what do you actually do on Monday to make this happen? That’s the problem with leadership models, theories, and frameworks—they aren’t actionable.”

What makes someone a great leader?

Great business leaders will always have the pressure and expectation of driving superior results, according to Suzanne. They need to know how to manage their time and priorities while holding themselves and others accountable. They should be able to deliver candid feedback with the right tone, clearly communicate strategy, make careful decisions, conduct productive meetings, and more. “That’s the competent side of great leadership,” she says.  

At the same time, the best leaders inspire loyalty and commitment from others. In addition to knowing how to select great talent for their team, leaders must also be skilled at rooting for those people, recognizing their strengths, and helping them grow professionally. This core competency involves long-term relationship-building, Suzanne says, and people will naturally follow someone who excels at this. It’s also what creates culture.   

“It’s a tall order,” she explains, “because great leaders have to constantly balance both sides of the coin. It’s not enough to be highly competent; they must also be good at building relationships and inspiring others around them. And if they’re great at recognizing and driving followership, but they can’t execute a strategy, run an efficient meeting, or exercise good judgment, then they’re not effective either.” 

If you want to increase your capacity for leadership (and help others perceive you as a great leader), Suzanne recommends focusing on three key routines.

1. Flex your leadership style.

When it comes to leadership, style matters as much as substance. “But it’s not about changing your personality or who you are. Personality is largely unchangeable,” says Suzanne. Rather, she says, it’s about adjusting a set of behaviors or habits you engage in consistently—the ones that govern what you do in certain situations.

For example, consider leaders who have brilliant ideas, yet team members find their style of delivery to be aggressive or arrogant and not at all reflective of a collaborative culture. On the other end of the spectrum, there are leaders whose ideas go unheard because they are tentative in how they speak and don’t seem to exude a confident presence. Either way, too aggressive or too passive, their communication style causes others to perceive these individuals as less effectual than they could be.

According to Suzanne, overcoming leadership style challenges often means focusing on making small behavior changes. Here are some examples:

  • Interrupting less often
  • Listening more than you talk
  • Providing affirmation for people’s ideas
  • Asking more questions
  • Using stronger language when you feel passionate about something (e.g., something is fantastic rather than merely good)
  • Avoiding too many qualifiers (e.g., I feel, it might, probably, maybe)
  • Using “we” language instead of “I” language to show inclusiveness versus your personal opinion

Be aware, however, that the changes you make may need to shift depending on the circumstances. So, in one meeting or conversation with colleagues, you may want them to perceive you as a huge supporter who understands their perspectives. That would call for different style markers than in other interactions—for example, in situations where you want to convey a sense of urgency or conviction in your own viewpoint.  

Again, it’s not about changing who you are. It’s about making minor adjustments to your style to make a noticeable impact.

2. Take and give feedback gracefully.

Another thing all great leaders have in common is that they take and give feedback well. “Leaders should never be above receiving feedback from anyone,” says Suzanne. “Even if you don’t agree with it, you still have to be gracious.” If you’re labeled as someone who doesn’t take feedback well, you increase the risk that others may stop bothering to give it.

“Feedback is simply the best way to improve your leadership skills,” she says, “and all great leaders believe they have a duty to ask for and receive feedback from their teams.”

When it comes to giving feedback, the key is to deliver it in a way that is both candid and relational. Feedback conversations must be developmental versus purely evaluative. This means ensuring your team understands how they can do better instead of simply learning that they did not quite measure up. It also means balancing positive feedback with constructive criticism, so that team members believe you are just as willing to recognize what they do well as you are to point out how they can improve.

3. Put in extra effort for a hybrid work environment.

The transition to fully remote or hybrid work has made it more difficult for many leaders to build and maintain relationships, Suzanne says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not nice, sociable people who are good in the moment,” she explains. “It’s just that being relational requires a strategy.” For example, you can meet for lunch with someone and have a great interaction, but you also need to have reasons to follow up and maintain frequency of contact over time.

Suzanne admits that innovation is also a challenge for most leaders in this new environment. “It’s harder to say, ‘Hey, I had this quick idea. Do you want to talk about it?’” she says. In fact, many people avoid sharing their ideas altogether because it means scheduling a call or video chat to discuss it. As a result, the inspiration behind collaboration and “war room” discussion fades. Still, if you’re building, growing, and nurturing relationships with your colleagues with regular communication, Suzanne says you can capture those moments of innovation even when working remotely.

What’s next?

If you’re on a journey to improve your leadership skills, Suzanne and her colleagues have a new website called Admired Leadership that offers a library of complementary and subscription-based content. You can also sign up for Field Notes, which delivers short, daily leadership lessons to your inbox.