“Leadership skills” is an item topping organizations’ — and individuals’ — professional wish lists, but what does that mean? Ask a dozen people what leadership is, and you’ll get as many different answers. Business and society care about this topic, but it can easily be confused with other things, and hard to classify — is it nature or nurture, art or science? What makes an effective leader? Can you lead without a cadre of direct reports? It’s time to clear away myths of leadership so organizations can better hire for, develop and reward these vital skills.

Progress, Not Maintenance

While there may be overlap in the skills good managers and good leaders exhibit, ultimately, they’re different roles: Managers maintain the status quo, but leaders push to achieve goals. Sometimes a leader chooses the goal — for instance, a CEO may set the direction of an organization. But sometimes leaders are executing on goals set by others and define how those goals are pursued. To make progress, they may need to articulate those goals and the action to take in their pursuit, as well as influence others in the organization to take that action.

Influence, Not Power

So how does a leader influence? It’s more about inspiration than control. Power and leadership often coincide, but they’re different tools; one is transactional and one is interpersonal. While power comes from someone depending on you for something and authority comes from formalized hierarchy, influence is about getting people to do something they don’t have to. Command-and-control approaches have limited effectiveness because they lead to burnout and disengagement. Leaders inspire people to action. Working through influence requires more effort than exercising power, but over the long haul, it leads to more engaged, purpose-driven and productive teams.

Influence relies on and is given to us by others, so it requires good social abilities that encourage other people to grant it to us. Until people willingly provide their efforts in your direction, you’re not really leading.

Behavior, Not Traits

Traditionally, research examined what traits made leaders effective. For example, personality research looked at the Big 5 framework, examining the differences between personalities along the OCEAN dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. But that was problematic to some degree. While extraversion is often the strongest personality correlate of having a leader’s performance rated well, that rating was often based on perception, not objective outcomes. These days, personality and leadership effectiveness research shows conscientiousness as the most important correlate of effectiveness. But personality is one small factor in success and is unlikely to determine the ability to lead others. Indeed, personality relates to leadership to the degree that it affects behaviors.

Much more directly, behavior is related to effectiveness. Three types of behavior are key to effective leadership:

  1. Change-Oriented Behavior: Leaders steer and enable change. They put forth a vision, create a safe environment for people to debate ideas, and encourage openness and flexible thinking.
  2. Task-Oriented Behavior: Leaders establish clear and consistent expectations, defining how different roles within a team are interrelated, as well as explicitly stated standards of communication.
  3. Relationship-Oriented Behavior: Leaders show concern for others and make it enjoyable to be a member of the group. They earn others’ respect, build confidence, show genuine concern and investment in team members’ welfare, build relationships and defuse conflicts. They do not simply say the right things, they build an environment of psychological safety and stability and lead by example — they do not take out their moods on others. These positive behaviors have a halo effect: Group members are more likely to do these things for each other when a leader is setting that standard — as well as more likely to express job satisfaction, go above and beyond, and remain committed to the group.

Hone Leadership Skills

Leadership is a process. That means leadership skills can be developed and practiced; they don’t depend on charisma or having a sense of self-assurance that one is always right. In fact, developing them may require some degree of vulnerability and humility. Three important ingredients contribute to improving one’s effectiveness in leading:

  1. Actively seek out developmental challenges. If your interpersonal skills are not having the desired effect or your team can’t seem to get over the hump in a project, confront those problems. After all, developmental challenges are necessary for development.
  2. Approach those challenges with a learning mindset. A person who adapts has a learning orientation that prioritizes mastery over immediate performance and sees setbacks as opportunities. The goal isn’t to look smart; the goal is to improve.
  3. Pursue high-quality feedback. It’s not enough to know you failed; information about why is critical to growth. Quality feedback helps you analyze your logic and where your perspective might not be sufficient.

Ultimately, leadership is not about molding your personality and more about your intentions and how you consistently behave. To cultivate leadership skills in your organization, talk to team members about the change, task and relationship behaviors that make up leadership’s foundation. Emphasize that leadership skills are cultivated deliberately, not dependent on personality or title.

The preceding is drawn from Darden Professor Sean Martin’s technical note Defining Leadership and Effectiveness (Darden Business Publishing).

The Executive Program (TEP):
Develop the agility and resilience to lead through disruption and digital transformation in today’s complex marketplace
About the Expert

Sean Martin

Donald and Lauren Morel Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in leadership, social class and ethics, Martin’s research addresses how organizational and societal contexts impart values and beliefs onto leaders and followers, and how those values influence their behaviors and experiences. His work has been featured in top academic journals, including Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Business Ethics and Organizational Psychology Review, as well as mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review and Comedy Central. 

Prior to joining the Darden faculty, Martin taught at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. 

B.A., University of California, Santa Barbara; MBA, California Polytechnic State University; Ph.D., Cornell University Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management