Today we are going to teach you how you can become an effective leader. This post deals with leadership skills.

In this post, we put leadership into its context, looking at the roles we adopt in the workplace. Next, we develop a model of effective leadership and consider the implications.

how to become a better leader


Professor Drucker developed a model of job roles. What he suggested is that any job of work involves the carrying out of four work roles and it is helpful to any employee to put work activities and skills deployed into a role context. By explicitly recognizing what role we are carrying out at any given moment in time, we can know what particular skills we should be using and, therefore, carry out the role more effectively than if we simply dip into a generic tool-bag to carry out all our work activities.

The roles are shown in Figure 1.1, and we will examine each role briefly before making some general points.

The four work roles identified are leadership, followership, technical and administration. Let us look at each of these turn.

Leadership Skills

improving leadership skills

This post concentrates on how we can be effective in the leadership role. Whether supervisor, junior manager, departmental manager, senior manager or executive, we have a responsibility and a duty to lead those we are put in charge of as effectively as we possibly can. We explore the nature of the leadership role in depth from a practical and action-oriented perspective. However, for many in a leadership role – which starts as soon as we are put in a position of authority over another member of staff – there is no exploration, because there is no explicit recognition of the role.

For those of us who do not consciously think of ourselves as leaders and so cannot plan to act effectively whenever we carry out the role, of necessity, we tend to focus on the job or ourselves and not our followers. Nevertheless, we provide, without thought or control, a pattern of behaviour and approach that, subconsciously, sets boundaries on the motivation and performance of those we are not consciously leading. We can often be surprised at poor performance and low motivation (when uncovered by some staff attitude survey), not realizing that we are the cause of such negative effects.

Such outcomes tend to be quite common when large organizations
carry out staff attitude surveys, assuming that those who fill them in believe they cannot be identified (the same holds for 360-degree feedback on the boss). The key reasons are:

  • lack of recognition by the key decision makers of how crucial the leadership role is in the changing times we all face;
  • if the importance of effective leadership is recognized in order to achieve cultural change, it is the absence of training or the presence of training that is ineffective;
  • if the training is effective, there is no support afterwards  what is termed the ‘glass ceiling effect’ – our bosses remain as they were and sometimes do not appreciate the followers’ more proactive approach.

On an optimistic note, we have enormous power as leaders to create – via the deployment of effective approaches, attitudes and skills – subcultures that transform the competence and motivation of our followers, irrelevant of the cultural norms in the company or our own boss’ leadership style.

We are in a leadership role whenever we communicate with a ‘subordinate’, whether electronically, by telephone, in one-to-one meetings or ‘team’ meetings. If you were to carry out a time-and motion study, you would find that you spend a lot of the working day in this vital role – how much time is likely to be much more than any initial estimate.


image for followership

We are also followers or in a ‘subordinate’ role. I will use that pejorative term as well as the term ‘boss’ as the words are so prevalent across many countries and cultures.

If leadership training is scarce, followership training is nonexistent. We learn how to be a follower by absorbing the culture and modifying our behaviour, depending on our understanding, interest and political skill, according to the unwritten rules we pick up along the way.

As Robert E Kelley said, ‘Followership is not a person but a role, and what distinguishes followers from leaders is not intelligence nor character, but the role they play. Effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts at different hours of the day’.


The technical role is our business role, when we carry out activities that define our professional competence, whether as lawyer, architect, consultant, product manager, production supervisor, salesperson, strategic planner, business development manager, administrator, IT manager, and so on.

It is the role where we are set hard measurable targets, and is usually perceived as the most important role by the corporate culture and individual manager. The combination of a focus on the technical role and absence of training in the leadership role explains why so many managers are poor delegators and work very long hours to less than optimum effect.


This final role is self-explanatory. Our working lives are full of administration matters. We have to organize ourselves and deal with the large volumes of paper and electronic information that result from being part of an organization.

How can we use the model?

The four core roles define any job. However, the role mix varies depending on the job itself. A research scientist would have a very large technical role, a managing director a very large leadership role.

As suggested, it is very helpful to think in terms of such roles, all of which we are likely to carry out more than once in a working day. The two key reasons for this are as follows:

  • We can identify the skills requirement of each role, the degree of overlap and degree of separation. We can devise and implement a plan to maximize our competence in each role. The lack of separation into roles has reduced the perception of importance of the ‘soft’ roles of leadership and followership and overemphasized the importance of the ‘hard’ technical and administration roles, with a severe reduction in personal and corporate effectiveness as a result. When did you last produce, never mind, update your action plan to be an effective follower and leader? I have little doubt that you have and review regularly your action plan to meet your business targets.
  • We can identify which work activity slots into which role, and therefore apply the skills or competences appropriate to that activity. It is a good idea to develop a role mind-set, to recognize when we are switching roles and what is the appropriate mind-set for that role. Often, we can leave a meeting as a follower, feeling frustrated or angry and, without pausing for thought, vent our anger on a subordinate, only to regret it and apologize. If we consciously recognized the switch in roles, we would have tempered our approach to our own follower and been a more effective leader as a result.

Having put leadership into its context, let us consider what constitutes effective leadership. We are going to look at this from three perspectives:

A follower’s view of good leadership

We want you to get a pencil and paper, pause for a few minutes and consider your own personal experience of leadership. Think of specific individuals in your life and times when you have been in the ‘followership’ role. You do not need to make it workspecific, but think of all kinds of individuals – parents, teachers, ‘gang’ leaders, lecturers and your bosses since starting work. Think back and think of any action each individual took that you felt helped you in whatever way. List all the different actions, focusing only on what was positive for you.

We do not know what you have written, but we have asked this question of many groups of managers from many companies and different cultures. It is surprising just how much commonality of thought emerges from very personal experiences. We will take the answers from a group of managers working in the insurance sector as an example. We have restructured the list into four key action areas and then set out the specific actions suggested in Figure 1.2.

figure 1.2

This list is action-oriented and, at first glance, appears insufficient. For instance, good leaders motivate their staff. However, when we look at motivation, we will discover that it is necessary and sufficient to carry out actions within this set to motivate staff. The other factor is ‘analysis paralysis’. Many organizations spend months trying to develop a complete set of what are termed ‘leadership competencies’ and then define each competence by a complete set of behaviours, skills and attitudes. When they come to train and develop according to this list, they find enormous overlap, because the competencies are not mutually exclusive. They are often incompatible (decisive leader and effective teambuilder, for example) and, in any case, it is impossible to achieve all these desired behavioural outcomes.

We should always be mindful of a quotation by Brian Pitman, Chief Executive Officer of the UK financial institution Lloyds TSB: ‘Strategy is focus and hard choices’. To become more effective leaders, we need to select key actions and then focus on making them happen.

Turning now to your list, how does it compare?

Another question. Which of the list of 16 actions do you feel you are incapable of carrying out? When I ask this question, invariably all the managers say ‘At a pinch, we could do them all.’ The list and the answer lead to two basic conclusions.

  • You manage tasks, and lead people. Often managers can make poor leaders, as they try to manage people as if they were tasks – impersonal entities to be organized, directed, controlled and monitored.
  • We can all be good leaders. Actions speak louder than words. If we do the right things at the right time in the right way, we will all be brilliant leaders. We can become leaders – we do not have to be born leaders. The model of heroic leadership – the charge of the light brigade – is, or should be, long dead.

A follower’s view of bad leadership

Now, repeat the previous exercise, but this time focus on everything that demotivated you, upset or annoyed you – accentuate the negative from past experience.

Again, I do not know what you have put on your list, so will share a list generated by a group of managers, this time working for a Malaysian multinational.

They said that bad leaders were dictatorial, inconsistent, failed to involve the team or set clear objectives, criticized and rarely praised, had favourites and showed prejudice, failed to delegate or simply dumped, failed to listen or provide feedback, showed no respect, were intransigent and closed-minded, failed to communicate results, did not give support, and did not appreciate their followers or their followers’ workload.

Again, there is a core of commonality, and a very large core, when different groups of managers from different companies, industries and countries respond to the question.

Interestingly, when asked the question ‘Which of the actions of a bad leader (in a worst case scenario and having crossed your heart to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth), would you not be capable of committing?’, what do think was the reply? You have got it, ‘none’.

Every individual is capable of the actions of a good and a bad leader. As Thomas Carlisle said, ‘The ideal is in thyself, the impediment is in thyself also.’

So, it is not a question of becoming a good leader by trying to follow some externally developed prescription, but discovering the effective leader in yourself. What you can achieve is continuous improvement, more and more occasions when you behave effectively as a good leader, and fewer and fewer occasions when you behave ineffectively as a bad leader.

A leader’s view of good leadership

I have not looked at the view of good leadership from the perspective of the leader for two reasons:

  • Your opinions will now be coloured by your reflections;
  • When asking groups of managers to go into syndicate rooms,
    each with their own brief, so that their thinking is not affected,
    the conclusions of the group looking at effective leadership
    as leaders mirrors very closely the conclusions of the follower
    group sharing their experience of good leadership.

We all know what it takes to be effective. The real question is what do we need to do to be effective – how do we go about being a better leader? The answer to this question is the focus in the following articles.