Businesses large or small depend on strong, capable leaders for success. But, as author Stephen M.R, Covey wrote in an article on Investor’s Business Daily’s website, there is a big difference between management and leadership; “People don’t want to be managed. They want to be led. You must know the difference if you want to be an impactful leader.”

Covey goes on to say that managing people is an old approach to leadership, and today, things are managed and people are led. Covey is co-founder and CEO of the Franklin Covey Trust Practice, a unit of FranklinCovey (FC), a worldwide development leadership company. He posits that to be an effective leader, you need to be excited about your job, and you need to care about your staff. 

“But it’s not enough to care,” Covey writes, “people have to know and feel that you care.” He believes that by putting in the effort to make personal, one-on-one connections with employees, leaders help their teams build a sense of belonging and inclusion, which inspires them to contribute their skills and talents. People want to know both that they matter and that what they’re doing matters, Covey adds: “They want to contribute their talents, skills, and time to something significant and meaningful. They want purpose.”

But are successful leaders simply born that way, or can effective leadership skills be learned?

In spite of the commonly used phrase “born leader,” studies have proved that while some traits like a sense of humor are innate, many key leadership skills can be learned and improved over time. In a post on Northeastern University’s graduate program website, Teresa Goode, EDD, associate teaching professor for the leadership program at Northwestern, says, “Instead of traits, our program is competency-based. We break these key competencies down to behaviors that students can observe, practice, and get feedback on.”

In the post, several key qualities are identified that shape an effective, well-rounded leader for any organization; focusing on the importance of a leader’s positive attitude and growth mindset so they are always working toward their business’s goals and mission.

The best leaders demonstrate the following five leadership qualities in both their personal and professional lives:

  1. Personal Growth and Emotional Intelligence: Leaders are self-aware, with a focus on personal growth and emotional intelligence. These leaders are more versatile, resilient, and comfortable accepting feedback. They practice active listening, are open to change, and communicate with others at every level of their organization. To develop self-awareness, strong leaders set and prioritize goals, pay attention to the big picture, and set boundaries between their personal and professional lives, setting a good example for their teams. 
  2. Developing Others: One of the most important characteristics strong leaders have in common is their interest in developing others. They are more likely to recruit and develop a diverse team with a variety of skills, and they coach and train their employees with empathy and understanding. Also, these leaders are comfortable delegating tasks without micromanaging their team.
  3. Strategic Thinking and Innovation: In addition to training staff, effective leaders encourage strategic thinking and innovation. Even at startups, where company goals and strategies change frequently, they focus on the future of the organization. They encourage innovation and creativity through brainstorming, while still setting practical and measurable, specific, attainable goals.
  4. Empathy for Their Team: The best leaders are ethical and care about their teams, as well as the organization and the community. Leaders who are transparent and authentic take the time to understand the difficulties their staff may experience, and offer encouragement and support. At the same time, emotionally intelligent, empathetic leaders celebrate employees’ successes.
  5. Communication Skills: Respected leaders communicate effectively with individual employees, different divisions within the organization, and stakeholders outside the organization. They explain corporate goals, tasks, and objectives in clear, precise language, and welcome enthusiasm, confidence, and creativity among their teams. Leaders who are the most competent are optimistic and believe in their organization’s mission. They value employees’ contributions as they strive to meet their goals.

Piggybacking on these qualities is a leader’s positive relational energy, according to Harvard Business Review’s website. Interviews with thousands of leaders and employees, in addition to years of research, have shown that leaders who are responsible for the most positive energy in an organization are something the authors of the post called positive energizers. These individuals’ secret is that by uplifting others through clear, values-based leadership, they also boost themselves and their organizations. Positive energizers demonstrate and cultivate values like forgiveness, compassion, humility, trust, kindness, integrity, honesty, and gratitude. As a result, the whole team and organization flourish.

To become a positive energizer and not a “de-energizer” who leaves employees feeling diminished and demoralized, the authors of the post offer these tips:

  • Explain everything from organizational goals to specific tasks and objectives in concise language so that your team understands your expectations and can meet them; if they fail, you are at fault for failing to express those expectations clearly. Communicate goals and targets often so that everyone in the organization knows what you, and they, are working toward.
  • There are major differences when communicating over the phone, via email, and on social media, and it’s critical to learn your strengths and weaknesses for each mode of communication.
  • Embrace enthusiasm, confidence, inspiration, optimism, and communicate these values to your team so that each member recognizes everyone’s contributions to achieving that goal.
  • Adapt your communication style to different cultural traditions when necessary. Some cultures expect explicit messages, while others tend to rely on the context between the lines. 
  • Remember that listening is just as important to communicating as speaking. Take the time to hear what others are saying. Ask follow-up questions if you don’t understand what they are trying to convey.

In addition to practicing the leadership tips listed above, the most admired and productive leaders ask open-ended questions, so they know exactly where their employees are coming from and can respond quickly. In an article on, Miriam Bowers-Aboot, who teaches communication and conflict management at Mount Carmel College of Nursing in Ohio, says that it’s important to “understand where the other person is coming from to present a compelling argument. If you don’t know what their priorities are, it’s hard to convince them.”

In sum, the best leaders master the so-called soft skills – empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, etc. – to bring the best out of themselves, and their teams. Perhaps the foremost skill, however, is communication, as it minimizes confusion, establishes a vision and ultimately galvanizes the entire operation.