It’s easy to think of good leaders as superheros, boosted by extraordinary skills and leadership strengths most of us haven’t mastered.
But the truth is that most leaders don’t have any superhuman qualities. While people define leadership in a number of ways, many successful leadership styles have plenty of overlap. Look at one great leader, and you'll find qualities that apply to many others.
Among these leadership strengths, three key skills are vitally important – but often overlooked completely. These underrated skills are:
1. Deep smarts.
I once worked at a company in which a leader was famous for doing intense math on the spot. If one of his staff members was presenting on profits, for example, this leader could recall the exact numbers from the previous year and calculate any changes – for better or worse.
It was intimidating to present numbers to this leader. But because he knew the numbers inside out and backwards, employees always came out of meetings with a crystal clear sense of the business’ priorities.
Leaders should strive to emulate this example by working toward what the Harvard Business Review characterizes as deep smarts — “know-how: skilled ways of thinking, making decisions, and behaving that lead to success again and again.” While there are a number of different leadership styles, all good leaders develop deep smarts.
It takes time and experience to develop deep smarts. Experts are proactive about seeking out the latest books, articles, and studies in their field. They also acquire experience by attending conferences and industry events, working with trusted mentors, and pursuing their careers with dedication.
The Harvard Business Review also points out a surprising fact: Some workers develop deep smarts seemingly without realizing their own value. If you’re a go-to person in your company who people rely on for answers, chances are you have deep smarts yourself.
To help their teams achieve deep smarts, leaders should consider providing meaningful professional development opportunities such as book clubs, opportunities to attend events, and systems to encourage mentoring.
Early in my career, I was responsible for setting up a video call between two offices. I followed all of the steps for using the software carefully, tested setting up the call beforehand, and felt confident. But on the day of the meeting, the system broke down. Not only did I discover that the IT staff in the other office hadn’t ensured that the two systems would be compatible, but the employees there were not willing to follow the troubleshooting steps I offered.
Immediately after the meeting, I sent the executive who led the meeting a note to apologize and outline steps I would take to fix the problem for the future. “No apology needed,” he wrote back right away. “I’m sure we’ll get it next time!”
I was surprised by the response, and grateful. The executive’s decision to focus on the future and express optimism completely turned the experience around. Optimism is not necessarily one of the essential leadership skills that good leaders possess, but it's certainly an added bonus that gets leaders far.
When employees encounter unforeseen challenges, they look to their leaders for guidance. Optimistic leaders inspire their teams to stay positive when tackling new problems.
An optimistic leader instills a sense of resilience in her employees, helping them look for opportunities for learning and growth rather than staying focused on mistakes or problems.
“Optimism helps us see new opportunities, learn from different situations, and keep moving,” writes Zach Cutler, CEO of Cutler PR, in Entrepreneur.
Many factors can impact optimism at work, but leaders play an important role in guiding their employees through obstacles such as deadline changes, indecisive clients, or unforeseen budgetary constraints.
It’s important to note that optimism doesn’t mean assuming that everything will always be seamless or perfect.
Before a project even begins, optimistic leaders help their teams set appropriate expectations – including instilling confidence that the team can quickly bounce back from setbacks thanks to strong communication, teamwork, and extra buffer time around deadlines.
By modeling optimism and giving employees the tools for success, a leader can help her team feel energized and optimistic, too.
3. Work-life balance.
At some point in our careers, most of us will encounter a manager who works around the clock. This manager might regularly send emails late at night or early in the morning, seem disappointed if you ask for vacation days, or rarely goes on vacation.
This type of manager usually starts with good intentions – after all, demonstrating excellent work ethic and determination are qualities that often help people achieve management positions in the first place.
However, when you assume a leadership position, you should also commit to modeling work-life balance. Great leaders give their employees permission to live healthy, balanced lives by modeling that behavior themselves.
If your employees are nervous to take their vacation or sick days, or if they feel inadvertently pressured to attend to round the clock emails, you’re more likely to end up with a burnt out and demoralized team.
When there is too much work to handle in a given work week or if every month suddenly feels like busy season, it’s time to reevaluate. Leaders who know how to be a good boss and are committed to maintaining a work-life balance will question whether current processes are effective, whether team goals are realistic, and whether they need to hire extra workers.
Remember the golden rule.
Ultimately, many overlooked leadership skills go back to the Golden Rule: Great leaders treat others the way they want to be treated.
Great leaders model the attitudes and habits that inspire and motivate their teams. It’s much easier to learn from a boss who emphasizes growth, resilience, and optimism, compared to a boss who is frequently worried or pessimistic about the future. Similarly, deeply knowledgeable leaders can educate their teams about industry wisdom and trends. By providing professional development opportunities, leaders can help their teams achieve expertise, too. Finally, leaders who expect their teams to work hard and bounce back from challenges should also prioritize work-life balance. Leaders have a valuable opportunity to set the tone for their teams and can ensure that the workplace is happy and healthy.
With these three subtle, underrated skills, you can up your leadership game and guide your team to success.