If you’re an executive trying to improve your leadership skills, here are 40 science-based techniques you can put to use right away. I travel the globe teaching executives from Coca-Cola, Verizon, IBM and others how to improve their performance and leadership skills, and I wanted to share some of those skills with you.
The platform I use to teach is called the Unspoken Rules of Leadership. (You’re at our website right now.) The tools and techniques are based on proven scientific principles and research I’ve conducted over the past several decades.
If you’re interested in improving your leadership skills, check out the techniques below. They’re designed to help people like you learn how to work smarter, not harder.
But First, What’s the Definition of Leadership?
Let’s start by defining what a leader is. There are thousands of definitions you can find online but most of them are confusing and overly academic. The best definition I’ve come across is in David M. Rubenstein’s book How to Lead.
Rubenstein defines a leader as “Someone who makes something happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” That simple, yet clear, definition sums it all up.
What Kind of Leader Are You?
Now that we’ve defined what a leader is, let’s move on to the next question, which is what kind of leader are you?
Based on research I’ve conducted about leadership over several decades, I’ve distilled all the different kinds of leadership styles into five primary categories:
Would you like to learn which one of the five leadership styles best sums up your talents? If so, click on the image below and it’ll take you to a short quiz I’ve created that will help you understand what style matches your approach to leadership.
40 Essential Leadership Skills to Help You Improve Your Performance
When I teach people the Unspoken Rules of Leadership, I start by explaining the Four Pillars of Leadership. This is a matrix I developed based on years of research to help categorize the techniques into four groups: Mindset, Mentoring, Management, and Marketing.
You can see the four points of the matrix in the image below. At the bottom are things you say to yourself, and at the top are things you say to others. On the left are things you say one-to-one, and on the right are things you say that are one-to-many.
The points on the matrix are then broken into four sections starting with Mindset. These are techniques designed to help leaders improve how they think.
From there, we move to the upper left green box which is Mentoring. These techniques are for people who want to improve their coaching and mentoring skills.
From there, we’ll skip down to the bottom right purple box which is Management. These techniques are designed to help people do a better job leading teams.
And we end up in the upper right yellow box called Marketing. These techniques are for people who want to improve their presentation and personal branding skills.
With all this in mind, let’s dive into the 40 techniques you can use to become a better leader, shall we? I’ve broken them into the four quadrants mentioned in the Four Pillars of Leadership above.
Studies show that successful leaders work diligently on what and how they think. With that in mind, let’s explore some mindset techniques you can use to improve your leadership skills.
- Work on your mindset first and your skillset second. Many people assume that great leaders focus on their skillset — learning how to use software, run meetings, write emails, etc. But research shows that great leaders work on their mindset first because good thoughts lead to good actions which (often) lead to good outcomes.
- Fix your first line of code. Your brain is like a software program. No matter how good the software program is, if the first line of code is broken, then the software won’t work. What is the first line of code in your brain? That you’re not good enough? That people don’t like you? That you’re not smart? Fix your first line of code and the rest of this will be easier.
- Model someone but don’t lose yourself. Tony Robbins teaches his followers to model someone they admire, but to also be sure they don’t become inauthentic in the process. So … who are you going to model yourself after? Elon Musk? Sheryl Sandberg? Warren Buffett? Oprah Winfrey? Someone else? You pick.
- Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s part of success. We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, so learn to embrace failure. It’s part of the process.
- Emotion comes from motion. Research indicates that by simply changing your posture from slouching to standing tall, you release endorphins into your brain. When that happens, you feel more confident and more in charge. Some people stand in the Wonder Woman pose for 60 seconds in order to generate the endorphins. Give it a try.
- Have an attitude for gratitude. Oprah Winfrey says that one of the keys to her success is that each and every morning she wakes up and writes down three things that she’s grateful for. If it works for Oprah, it’ll work for you.
- Let go of the outcome. Earlier in this blog post, I mentioned that good thoughts lead to good actions which (often) lead to good outcomes. The reason I say “often” and not “always” is that we can’t control the outcomes of every situation — there are too many variables. So … let it go. It’s very, very hard to do that, but, as Buddha said, “expectation is the source of all suffering.” When you expect an outcome, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. (Ponder that for a moment. It’s brilliant.)
- Work when your brain wants to. I don’t know about you, but my brain works best on numbers in the morning and writing in the afternoon. (As I write this it’s about 4 PM in the afternoon.) If I have to do numbers, I do that in the morning. Figure out when your brain does its best work. Science tells us that people are the most alert between 2 1/2 and four hours after you wake up. If that includes you, do the hard stuff in the morning and save the easy stuff for the afternoon.
- Action leads to motivation, not the other way around. Are you struggling to get motivated? If so, don’t wait for motivation. Studies show that action leads to motivation. That means that when you take action on something, after five minutes, you’ll feel motivated to do it. Sometimes you just have to start. By just starting on something for 5 minutes, motivation will follow.
- Intensity of effort does not lead to success. Many people mistakenly believe that it’s the intensity of effort that leads to success. But that’s not actually true. It’s the consistency of effort. A marathoner doesn’t wake up one morning and decide that they’re going to run a marathon that day. That would be too intense. Instead, they wake up every morning for six months and run increasingly long distances over time. That consistency of effort is what leads them to success.
If you’re a team leader, coach, mentor, or any executive with a staff, learning how to mentor others is an essential skill. Here are 10 techniques you can use to become a better mentor to others.
- Think Backwards. The secret to being a good mentor, coach, or team leader is to get inside the mind of your mentee and to think backwards from there. In other words, understand what motivates them at a nuanced level and then work backwards to the mutually beneficial goals you have for them. If someone wants to be CEO someday, that’s an important piece of information that will help you work with them. Alternatively, if someone wants to coast a little bit and not work their way up the chain of command, that’s another important piece of information that can help you understand how to work with them.
- Find out how your mentee likes to work. Everyone has a style of working that they prefer. Some people like to dive in early in the morning. Others prefer to ease their way into the day. Some people like to connect via email, others like in person conversations. As simple as it sounds, many executives forget to check in with their co-workers on how they like to manage their time in the office. By asking the simple question, “How do you like to work?” you’ll save yourself hours of frustration on the back-end.
- The Energy you project is the energy your mentee feels. If you’re nervous, they’ll pick up on that energy. If you’re calm, they’ll pick up on that energy. Remember, your employees are always looking for little micro-signals to help them understand your mood and your thoughts. Be aware of that — what you project is what they feel.
- Practice active listening. Try to identify where the other person is coming from. Listen to the data behind what they’re saying. And restate their concerns back to them. By practicing active listening, you build a bridge between you and your mentee.
- Keep employees engaged in the company goals and objectives. Studies show that there are five ways to kill employee engagement. The first is through erratic expectations. The second is through favoritism. The third is through micromanagement. The fourth is through distractedness on your part. And the fifth is through employee burn out. Keep an eye on all of these things as a way to make sure that you are connecting with your mentee in the most productive way possible.
- Don’t underestimate the power of the words “let’s” and “we.” When you use words like “let’s” and “we,” it builds a connection between you and the person you’re mentoring. Give it a try. It works like magic.
- Use nouns rather than verbs to help your mentee visualize an outcome. Using nouns to describe your mentee can help improve outcomes. In other words, when you say, “Denise is our team leader,” you’ll get better results than if you say, “Denise is leading the team.” Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. In a survey with prospective voters, “How important is it for you to be a voter?” was 11% more effective at getting people to vote than when they asked, “How important is it for you to vote?” Another example is “He is a liar,” which is much more damning than “He lies.”
- One of the best ways to build a connection with your employees is to ask for their help. When you ask someone for their help or for their advice, you strengthen the connection between you and that person. This is another surprisingly simple technique that works like a charm. Give it a try,
- Push the purpose: people want to know what to do as much as they want to know why they’re doing it. Help your employees engage with your goals and objectives by explaining to them why accomplishing the goals and objectives is in their best interest.
- Communication styles matrix: Dr. Eileen Russo did a study in the how people communicate. Some are direct, others are spirited, some are systematic, and some are considerate. Review the image below to understand the differences between them. More importantly, make sure you communicate in the style of the person you are mentoring. If they are a direct communicator, then you need to take on that style. If they’re considerate, you need to take on that style. It’s incumbent upon you, as a leader, to take on the style of the person you’re leading.
Learning how to manage teams of people is as important as learning how to manage individuals. Here are several techniques you can use to become a better team leader and manager.
- Be authentic but not fully transparent. As a manager, it’s your job to be authentic. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be fully transparent. People often confuse the two. Being authentic means that you’re being genuine. Being fully transparent, which you don’t want to do, means that you share everything. Nobody wants to be led by a person who is struggling with serious personal issues. So keep your transparency managed, without losing your authenticity.
- Embrace employee differences. The reason Lennon and McCartney were so successful is because they each came at music from a different perspective. That combination of two different styles of music created the most successful band in history. Putting teams together that have a variety of personality types and thinking skills can create some minor tension, but that tension can lead to some amazing results for your organization.
- Keep teams between five and nine employees. Studies show that the most effective teams have between five and nine people in them. More than that and they become bureaucratic. Fewer than that and they don’t have the diversity (and the tension mentioned above) to generate new and innovative ideas.
- Bonding with your team releases oxytocin. When you do team activities together, oxytocin is released, which is a chemical that improves mood, reduces stress, and creates a feeling of interconnectedness. Occasionally creating tasks (or team-building events) that your employees work on together can strengthen your team and improve results for your organization.
- Mixed aged teams outperform youth only teams. This goes back to the research indicating that teams with different levels of experience and different cognitive approaches generate better results. Studies show that mixed aged teams can help facilitate those dynamics and improve your results.
- In some cases, your team should have a manager, not a leader. People in businesses tend to be competitive and if someone is tagged as the team leader, it can often create unnecessary conflict. If you’re creating a team that is taking on a specific, short-term task, then assign a manager rather than a leader. It often reduces friction within the team.
- Over prepare and then relax. When you’re presenting to your team, be sure to over prepare and practice so that you can relax once you’re in the meeting. People gravitate to leaders who are confident. And confidence comes from preparation.
- A formula to spot burn out. At certain times, teams can get burnt out. Here’s an informal formula you can use to spot it before it happens: (High IQ + High Ambition) x Staff Shortage = approximately 18 months to burn out. (A note to math majors: Admittedly, this formula doesn’t actually compute. But it’s a metaphor, which is something they taught you in your English class.)
- 80% of all team problems are due to lack of communication. It’s surprising, but studies show that better communication improves results from teams about 80% of the time. A great way to improve communication is to set up team meetings. Yes, we all have too many meetings, but if you keep the meeting short and the communication flowing, you’ll find that productivity and morale increases as a result.
- Give up on your need to be right and replace it with a need to be accurate. By removing your need to be right about something, you enter into a state of humility which means you can focus on being accurate instead. When accuracy of information and clarity of the end goal are your two guide posts, then you’ll make the right decisions moving forward.
How you present yourself in meetings and in public can impact your ability to be an effective leader. Here are several tips you can use to improve your personal branding and your personal marketing.
- Know yourself to grow yourself. It’s important to have a sense of yourself and how you come across to others. Find a team member in your office who you can trust and who will provide you honest feedback about your style and approach. Or, use a personality profile like PrinciplesUs.com to get a better sense of your strengths and weaknesses. All that said, you should avoid asking your direct reports for too much feedback since that can create a sense of incompetence or lack of confidence.
- Under 40 you get paid for what you do. Over 40 you get paid for what you know. As you navigate through your career, you’ll find that people rely on you because of what you know, not because of what you do. If you find yourself moving into a teaching, coaching, or mentoring role, that’s a good sign and should be celebrated.
- Good leaders take complex things and make them simple. Some leaders think that if you take something simple and make it complex it’s a sign that you’re smart. (This happens in academia all the time and why college textbooks are way, way too long and complex.) The truth is a good leader takes complex things and makes them simple.
- Don’t complain and don’t explain. A successful leader does not complain to others. They also don’t try to explain away why they didn’t meet their goals or objectives.
- Your team members want to be told which mountain to climb, not how to climb it. That statement speaks volumes and needs no further explanation.
- The number one secret for running a meeting — know the outcome before it starts. It’s not always easy to know the outcome of every meeting, but as much as possible, you should have a clear understanding of how the meeting will begin, how it will progress, and how it will end. By having a clear understanding and a clear visualization beforehand, you’ll have more success moving forward.
- Successful leaders take every opportunity seriously. If your job is to sort the mail, be the best mail sorter in the universe. Let them know that you were there — even if you’re the mail sorter. That strategy will pay dividends well into the future.
- Good leaders don’t get distracted by sideways energy. Sideways energy is anything that takes your mind and focus off your goals and objectives. Gossip, dead-end streets, and initiatives that aren’t important are all sideways energy that can get in the way of you and your future success.
- Know your audience as well as you know yourself. Will you be making presentations to board members? To client prospects? To team members? If so, then understand your audience as much as you understand yourself. Before any meeting, try to get a sense of the personality types in the room. Figure out what their pain points are and what their expectations are. By doing so, you’ll ensure a better outcome from any presentation or sales pitch. By the way, a great tool to help you do this is called Crystal Knows. It’s an excellent piece of software and something I use quite frequently.
- Engage your audience. When making presentations, speak to the interests of your audience. Use stories, examples, and anecdotes to illustrate key points. Be generous with eye contact since it builds a bridge between you and the people in the audience. Also, use peoples names — it works like crazy.
- Start in the middle (and other speaker tips): When you’re making a presentation to board members, management teams, or at an industry event, keep these things in mind: First, start in the middle of a presentation. Skip over the fluff stuff (e.g., “I’d like to thank you for inviting me here today…”) that often accompanies presentations. Start with a bang. Also, in a presentation larger than three people you should always stand. And remember, don’t lean on anything while you’re speaking. How many slides should you have? Typically, you can count on one to one and a half minutes per slide, so use that as a guide. And finally, if there is a stakeholder in the room who is going to make a decision, make sure they have a very, very clear understanding of what’s being presented before you take the stage. Often times, the stakeholder will give you invaluable guidance before you actually make your presentation.
Learning how to make good presentations and how to market your personal brand can be an important component to your success today and tomorrow. All of this can be summed up by a terrific quote from Warren Buffett.
Being a successful leader takes a lot of thought and hard work. But the tips and techniques outlined here can help you sort through how to be the best leader possible. The key thing to remember is that leadership is a marathon not a sprint. You’ll have small setbacks along the way, and those are to be expected. Just remember that short term failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s a component of success. That’ll help you navigate through the inevitable setbacks in life and career.
My name is Jamie Turner. I teach the Unspoken Rules of Leadership at events and conferences around the globe. If you’d like more information, please feel free to click here and we’ll open up a dialogue.
About the Author: Jamie Turner is an internationally recognized author, professor, consultant, and speaker who has helped employees at The Coca-Cola Company, Holiday Inn, Microsoft, Verizon and others do a better job leading, managing, and mentoring others. You may have seen Jamie in Inc., Entrepreneur, Business Insider, or Forbes. He’s also a regular guest on CNN and HLN, where he delivers segments on marketing, persuasion, and leadership. Jamie is the co-author of several essential business books and his YouTube channel was designated one of the “Top 10 Business YouTube Channels” in the nation by Wishpond.com.