Fifty-eight percent of all U.S. companies say their number one strategic priority is closing their current leadership skill gaps. In 2017, these companies spent $31 billion on leadership programs to achieve just that. What’s more, many companies plan to increase their total spending on leadership development initiatives in the next few years—now treating professional development as an important component of their business strategy.
With strong leadership in such high demand, improving your leadership skills can give you a competitive advantage, because, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be in a C-level role to be considered a leader. Strong leaders exist—and are highly valued—at every level of business to inspire, engage, and influence their colleagues and stakeholders.
Why are Leadership Skills So Important?
Recent studies have found leadership quality to be a significant determinant of an organization’s success, which explains companies’ large investments in leadership-focused initiatives. Organizations with strong leaders experience better overall organizational performance, including high levels of customer satisfaction, organizational productivity, financial gains, and product quality. Effective leadership also has a positive impact on employee retention, performance, engagement, and morale.
Despite the criticality of quality leadership, 84 percent of organizations predict that they will experience a shortage of skilled leaders in the next five years. This is due, in part, to the nearly 10,000 baby boomers that reach retirement age every day, which means more leadership roles are ready to be filled by new—and sometimes inexperienced—talent. This significant gap in upcoming leadership means it is more important than ever for job seekers to demonstrate strong leadership skills in addition to job- and industry-specific skills.
Brian Bullock, lecturer at Northeastern University, explains why:
“In many organizations today, leaders and managers are promoted because they’re good at a skill. When they enter the leadership position, though, they struggle because they haven’t studied management approaches or skills. Leadership is a skill that needs to be continuously developed and worked on.”
In short, the leaders of today and tomorrow require a different set of skills than the leaders of yesterday. Rather than being experts in their specific field of work, they must also have strong leadership skills in order to effectively manage their teams. Here’s a look at the competencies they need and why they’re important, plus ways to strengthen them.
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5 Essential Leadership Skills and Practices
Because businesses today operate at breakneck speed, leaders should prioritize a half-hour a week to focus on themselves, whether that means learning something new or taking time to plan for the week ahead, Bullock says.
“This could be seeking out quick learning experiences, whether they’re through online videos or short, online trainings,” he says. “Maybe it’s learning about how to work with difficult people, how to have a difficult conversation, or how to motivate someone who’s difficult to motivate. Learning isn’t something that should ever end; it should be continual.”
Self-development might also mean setting aside time each week to prioritize what you want to achieve in the week ahead. This helps you become more intentional, Bullock says.
“When you step into your workspace, you’re immediately flooded with communications and fires to put out. This whirlwind hinders your intentionality because you’re only reacting,” he says. “Think about what’s most important for you and your team in the upcoming week, and set strategic actions to accomplish them.”
2. Team development
Equally as important as your own development is the development of your team members, Bullock says. Some of the most successful managers today are adopting a leadership approach that embraces developing partnerships with employees, he adds. In this paradigm, superiors embrace developing partnerships with employees, working together with them to develop and achieve goals, and allowing employees to take a more independent approach in completing their work.
“Leaders today might check in once a week for 10 to 15 minutes with the people on their team to review priorities, what they’re working on, and how they’re feeling—whether they’re overwhelmed or engaged, for example,” Bullock says. “It’s more about collecting real-time data on their team to make sure they’re focused on the right things at the right time.”
Moreover, as job-hopping trends continue to increase, retaining talent is more important than ever. Leaders should meet with their team members quarterly to discuss the employee’s interests, ambitions, and goals and then work together to develop a path with resources to get there.
“Many times leaders aren’t aware of all the resources that are available to them,” he says. “When people think about development, their mind goes to sitting in a classroom—but that’s not necessarily the only option. There are videos, e-learning opportunities, on-the-job trainings, and even networking events that can be useful. The leader’s job is to facilitate this process.”
3. Strategic thinking and acting
Companies today must remain nimble and responsive to change, which is why strategic thinking are among the most highly effective leaders, according to Harvard Business Review. In the report, HBR found that a strategic approach to leadership was 10 times more important to the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors it studied, including communication and hands-on tactical behaviors. Strategic thinkers take a broad, long-range approach to problem-solving and decision making that involves objective analysis, thinking ahead, and planning.
“Leaders need to think about the best route to get to the outcomes that exceed the expectations for the people they serve,” Bullock says. “There are many ways to go about that, including setting a vision and being clear about what that means, along with everyone’s role in achieving that vision.”
4. Ethical practice and civic-mindedness
Leaders set the standard for teams based on their values, Bullock says. “The things you talk about, do, and allow all become part of your team’s culture,” he says. “If you’re talking about ethics and doing the right thing, your team will pick up on that,” he says. “What you value gets valued by your team.”
Ethics and civic mindedness are often dictated by the organization through written policies and procedures that leaders should learn and periodically reference. Many leaders are aware that these policies exist, but only seek them out in times of crisis, Bullock says. Instead, leaders should familiarize themselves with the policies and procedures so they’re prepared when an ethics situation arises.
“Most leaders don’t take ethics as seriously as they should,” he says. “Mishaps happen when something drastic happens and they get caught up in the whirlwind. Leaders should have ethics front-of-mind so when a problem happens they can handle it quickly and effectively.”
For businesses to keep pace in today’s competitive marketplace, innovation needs to be an organizational priority—and this type of culture starts at the top. It’s easy for leaders to get stuck in a rut performing their everyday responsibilities because people are creatures of habit, Bullock says. Innovation is a good way for leaders to change things up and try something new—which sometimes leads to great ideas and better methods.
“Leaders need to create an environment in which people feel psychologically safe to try something new, see how it goes, and even fail,” he says. “In today’s fast-paced world, people are reluctant to try new things.”
Once again, this starts by setting the example yourself. Bullock recommends that leaders make time every week to try something new, whether it’s a new process or idea.
“Leadership is synonymous with learning,” Bullock says. “The best leaders are the ones who are constantly learning and figuring out how to fill the gaps and develop skills that are the most meaningful to them.”
Acquiring Leadership Skills
If you’re feeling less than confident in your current abilities in these areas, don’t fret. Fortunately, these skills can be learned and refined over time. According to a study by Harvard University, 85 percent of executives who participated in leadership development programs—including classroom learning, online training, one-on-one mentoring, and job shadowing—were able to improve their leadership effectiveness dramatically in just three years.
There are many ways to acquire and develop these skills to advance your career and stay in demand in the marketplace. A graduate education is one reliable way to improve your leadership skills to help you confidently face the rigors of working in challenging business environments.
7 Ways Graduate Studies Can Improve Your Leadership Skills
Twenty-seven percent of companies report that they now target advanced degree holders for roles that used to require four-year degrees, in part due to the often superior leadership abilities among those with an advanced education. Here are some of the ways that earning a master’s degree can improve your leadership skills to help you grow in your career:
1. You’ll Develop Business Acumen
Graduate coursework is designed to sharpen critical thinking and analytical skills. You’ll be required to craft compelling arguments, defend them against criticism, and justify your decisions with data. You’ll address complex, multi-faceted case studies with solutions that require a thorough situational analysis and strategic thinking. In the real world, leaders are faced with similar challenges that require the ability to consider the needs of many diverse stakeholders in their decision making.
2. You’ll Improve Your Goal-Setting Capabilities
Achieving an advanced degree is no easy feat. Completing graduate studies exhibits your ability to set goals and see them through to execution. Balancing graduate coursework with your professional and personal life requires initiative, time management, and superior organizational ability. Given the self-directed nature of graduate work, you’ll learn to set goals, organize, learn, and complete objectives with little direction—which, according to global leaders, is the second most important competency for leaders.
3. You’ll Become a More Effective Communicator
In an age of constant and rapid change, effective communication skills are critical. According to a survey by Harvard Business Review, clear communication of expectations is among the top three skills required for quality leadership. In graduate school, you’ll have the chance to improve your communication abilities by constructing written arguments and participating in classroom discussion. As a leader, you’ll use these skills to deliver compelling communication to motivate teams, respond to problems, engage employees, and effectively relay your strategic vision.
4. You’ll Gain a Global Perspective
In graduate school, you’ll meet and work with people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Surrounding yourself with diverse minds and opinions will give you a broader perspective and increase your cross-cultural competency and awareness. This exposure will give you the ability to learn from others more efficiently, improve intercultural communication, and enable you to better lead across countries and cultures—currently one of the leadership skills companies say they struggle with most.
5. Your Views Will Be Challenged
Graduate courses are designed to push you out of your comfort zone, encourage flexibility, and teach you how to respond favorably and strategically to change. By learning to step aside from preconceived beliefs, consider the perspectives of others, and challenge their current problem-solving methods, graduate students learn to lead more inclusively. Successful leaders are comfortable challenging their own views in order to make the best and most objective decisions.
6. You’ll Solve Real-World Problems with Industry Leaders
In grad school, you’ll learn from key players in your industry, who utilize real-world experience to help you combine cutting-edge research with practice. These individuals teach core industry competencies while also imparting advice on how to be a more effective leader in real-world environments. Through hands-on, experiential learning opportunities offered at some graduate programs, you’ll develop problem-solving skills and gain exposure to new business models and state-of-the-art innovations to help you lead creatively.
7. You’ll Become a Teamwork Expert
In graduate school, you’ll participate in many collaborative projects and breakout sessions during classes that encourage cooperation to solve complex problems. These environments help embody the collective nature of leadership and illustrate the importance of failing and succeeding together. These collaborative projects can teach you lasting lessons about how to build and manage teams, by noting strengths, weaknesses, and personality dynamics. You’ll learn to listen to the views of others, experience different work ethics, and delegate effectively. As a leader in the real world, you’ll be able to utilize these skills to inspire a shared vision and enable others to act.
Developing Yourself as a Leader
Leadership skills are in high demand, and a graduate education can help you get there. To improve your skills, it helps to have sustained practice in a real-world environment. As a busy professional, balancing learning and work can be a challenge. But through rigorous curricula and hands-on experience, graduate school enables you to gain and improve your leadership skills without taking a break from your current workload, maintaining a real-world focus while learning new theory in tandem.
Northeastern’s Master of Science in Leadership is one such graduate program that is designed to cultivate strong leadership skills in learners. The program combines real-world lessons and an action-learning approach to prepare students to become the leaders of tomorrow.
Interested in further improving your leadership skills and advancing your career? Download our free guide below.