Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously observed about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

The same might be said about leadership.

In our coaching work, we’ve explored the concept of leadership for years.

We’ve had the pleasure of coaching many great leaders, and it’s led us to conclude that leadership is not an inborn skill.

Instead, anyone can improve as a leader by practicing the traits of a great leader consistently over time.

Below are 6 proven leadership skills and behaviors we’ve discovered over the years consistently are practiced by the very best leaders:

  • Leadership Skill #1 – Be an enthusiastic advocate:

    No matter what initiative or goal you are leading a team to accomplish, your job as a leader is to be the “Inspirer-in-Chief”.

    Nothing inspires people more than passion, optimism, and resilience. Nothing demotivates them more than a leader who regularly sees the glass as half empty.

    Not every person or every leader is naturally enthusiastic though. Some leaders are more cerebral, more soft-spoken, or more introverted. They may find it difficult to be enthusiastic and inspire others in an authentic way.

    This type of leader can be just as inspirational as their more extroverted colleague. Often a quieter leader can engender trust, deep respect, and motivation without the “rah/rah” behavior.

    But no matter what their innate personalities are like, all leaders can practice these inspirational behaviors:

    • Speak from the heart: Let others know what inspires you personally about the idea or project.
    • Share your vision: Help people see how this particular project or initiative connects to the big picture.
    • Engage your team in owning the project: People are inspired when they feel connected not just to their own work but also to bigger outcomes.
    • Listen to other people share what inspires them: Talking to people about your passion as a leader Is not enough: You need to hear what drives them, too.
    • Always act with integrity: Your team needs to believe in you if they are going to believe in your goals.
  • Leadership Skill #2 – Practice what you preach and be the best “role model”:

    Great leaders don’t get to have “off days” or lose their cool under pressure – no excuses, no exceptions.

    If you expect the team to persevere through adversity and maintain its equilibrium despite frustration, you must be the best example of that.

    In the past, some leaders may have felt that they could separate words from deeds. They could “tell” people what to do and how to behave, but not necessarily follow those rules themselves.

    If that time ever existed, it’s long gone. You only need to consider the expectations of today’s young and emerging leaders to know that’s true. They value transparency and authenticity more than any previous generation.

    Instead, great leaders:

    • Never ask anything from a team member that they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves.
    • Are worthy of other people’s admiration and respect because they behave respectfully at all times
    • Never give themselves an excuse for bad behavior
    • Acknowledge when their behavior has fallen short, and apologize immediately and sincerely
  • Leadership Skill #3 – Don’t undermine the team’s confidence or focus:

    Leaders set the tone.

    Great leaders know that they need to be mindful of the situation and act and speak appropriately. Some issues call for a serious-minded response. Others may be less weighty. The key is to know what is called for in terms of the leader’s attitude and act accordingly.

    Great leaders keep in mind:

    • It’s never appropriate to be sarcastic or cynical about a team’s objectives or progress.
    • Joking about an important project is dicey. It runs the risk that people will question your commitment to it.
    • Criticizing a colleague is never appropriate in front of a group or team.
    • “Venting”, “blowing off steam”, or other excuses for inappropriate words or actions by a leader are just not valid.
  • Leadership Skill #4 – Listen, listen, listen:

    Most team leaders talk much more often than they should, and it’s a bad idea.

    You already know what you know. Listening tells you what your team knows, which is far more important.

    Listening to people makes them feel important and needed. Client teams tell us that not being listened to can be one of the biggest turnoffs for them.

    Great leaders:

    • Learn the skills of “Active Listening” and follow through on it.
    • Never, ever interrupt. Great leaders let people finish what they’re saying, no matter what.
    • Listen with an open mind and heart.
    • View listening as the best way to learn.
    • Ensure that their teams listen to one another with respect.
  • Leadership Skill #5 – Be decisive:

    As coaches, it’s surprising to us how often we meet leaders who are bright, knowledgeable, and confident, but who shy away from making decisions.

    Sometimes they are under the misperception that “deciding” is the same as “dictating”, and they want the team to come to a consensus on its own.

    That happens once in a while, but much more often, the team wants the leader to decide. That’s the leader’s job, and people respect and appreciate a leader who does it.

    Other times leaders think they are managing risk by keeping their options open and delaying final decisions.

    Sometimes this approach works and it can be reflective of a “Servant Leadership” style. But too often, leaders who think they are serving their teams may actually be letting them down. Failure to make decisions often leads to uncertainty and confusion.

    Great leaders:

    • Insist that decisions are made as soon as possible.
    • Listen to the team’s recommendations and views, but keep the decision-making power in their own hands.
    • Encourage dissent and discussion, but don’t allow them to prevent decisions being made.
    • Share the reasons for their decisions openly and fully with their teams.
    • Let the team know what options were considered and rejected, and why.
  • Leadership Skill #6 – Emphasize accountability:

    Holding people accountable is a fundamental leadership attribute.

    Many of the leaders we coach think they are doing a good job of this, but when they seek feedback from colleagues, it becomes clear that they are often deceiving themselves.

    What does the failure to hold people accountable look like?

    Letting mistakes or sloppy work “slide.”; Failing to make sure that the work is done on time and on spec; Tolerating unproductive behavior from team members; Accepting or living with an employee’s weaknesses rather than viewing them as a development challenge.

    When leaders do those things once in a while, they may be able to recover.

    But when they do them on an ongoing basis, the team learns an unfortunate lesson – that there are no meaningful consequences for failure, poor performance, or bad behavior.

    Once a team learns that, the leader may never be able to achieve the kind of performance from the team that he or she needs and wants.

    Instead, great leaders:

    • Provide ongoing, consistent feedback, both positive and negative.
    • Work to address performance issues early on rather than hoping the individual will improve over time.
    • Create an open atmosphere in which mistakes are learning opportunities. This encourages people to admit them and correct them.
    • Hold every member of the team to a standard of respectful, collaborative behavior, no matter his or her seniority, expertise, or track record.

Going Forward:

How do you know whether you’re using these strategies? Don’t trust your own memory or what you “believe” you are doing.

The only way to know if you’re doing them, and doing them consistently is to find out by getting honest, regular and measured feedback.

Ask your colleagues for informal feedback or get a formal 360-degree evaluation so that you can be sure you know whether your behavior matches your beliefs, and how it is evolving and changing over time.

Another avenue to pursue is to consider leadership coaching as part of your leadership development process.

Think about the best leaders you know in your organization. Chances are, they know and practice these 6 skills and behaviors consistently, and now, so can you.