The role of leadership in the workplace is rapidly evolving as technology brings about dramatic changes to the way teams communicate, collaborate, and get work done.

What hasn’t changed is its importance. Leaders who can get the most out of their employees by fostering a positive work environment and putting them in the best position to succeed are rewarded with higher productivity and greater innovation.

Those who can’t suffer sub-optimal employee performance and have trouble retaining staff.

Legendary football player and coach Vince Lombardi was right when he said that, “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”

That sentiment went against the common prevailing wisdom at the time, which held that leaders are mostly born to fill that role; no one else need apply.

A study of identical and fraternal twins conducted in 2006 shed some interesting new light on the subject and definitely proves otherwise.

While genes (nature) do play a role in determining leadership ability, environment (nurture, experience) plays more than twice as large a role.

The findings show that becoming a future leader is possible through proper training and grooming.

7 Traits of Highly Effective Leaders

Early studies of trait leadership conducted in the 1940s and ‘50s list dominance as being a critical attribute of the best leaders. At the time, workers were considered to be inherently shifty and lazy, and needed to be pressured into doing their best work.

Times have changed since then, with the whip being put away in favor of the dangling carrot.

It’s now understood that employees are more productive not when they are being hounded by a ruthless taskmaster who counts the seconds of their bathroom breaks, but when they are put in low-stress environments and given as much autonomy as possible.

That’s why recent studies have found that traits like agreeableness, charisma, and openness are all extremely important for leaders to have.

The seven traits that have the most positive correlation with leadership performance according to a 2002 meta-analysis of multiple studies are:

  • Charisma
  • Intelligence
  • Extraversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Creativity
  • Openness
  • Honesty/Integrity

When examining the primary functions that leaders need to perform, it’s easy to see why these seven traits are so important for them to have.

What Does Leadership Actually Entail?

Defining what leadership is can be challenging given the nearly limitless range of different scenarios in which it’s applied.

The scope of leadership can vary greatly between roles based on everything from the number of employees being managed, to the nature of the work being performed, to the amount of collaboration required between team members.

While by no means an exhaustive list, several studies pinpoint a number of key aspects of workplace leadership:

  • Establishing and working towards the achievement of group goals and values
  • Making the most of employees’ abilities
  • Resolving work-related problems and employee-related conflicts
  • Integrating the unique styles and personalities of individual employees into a cohesive unit

The list underscores the importance of leaders being great communicators, which is reinforced by the list of seven most important leadership traits, four of which are communication-based.

According to Focus Brands COO Kat Cole, “Your job as leader is to stay as close in touch as possible with those closest to the action.”

Given their most common workplace objectives, leaders also need to be a strong judge of character with the ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their employees, allowing them to best utilize their colleagues both on an individual level and within the context of the team’s overall effectiveness.

Understanding how to manage and treat employees also requires knowing what motivates and inspires them at work, as well as what factors are most likely to make their job performance suffer and their retention rates plummet. 

What Employees Want from their Jobs and Leaders

Landmark research undertaken by Gallup that included interviewing thousands of employees from around the world reveals the 12 aspects of workplace culture that most accurately predict top work performance from individuals and groups.

Among the study’s most important revelations about what employees want from their jobs is:

  • To know what is expected of them
  • To have the resources necessary to perform their duties
  • To work on tasks they feel well-suited for
  • To receive recognition for their work
  • To have opportunities to learn and grow
  • To have someone who encourages their development and discusses their progress
  • To feel like their opinions matter

Since that initial study, more than 87,000 corporate divisions/units have been analyzed to determine how well they meet those 12 important criteria, which are dubbed the Q12.

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Those which are the most successful at doing so experience lower employee turnover, better productivity and sales, and more loyalty from their customers.

Employee Engagement and Culture

Perhaps the biggest take away from the large body of results is the absolutely massive impact that good management and work culture has on employee engagement and productivity.

Whereas it was previously assumed that the desirability of the job itself plays the largest role in determining employee engagement, the data shows that isn’t the case at all. Instead, engagement correlates far more with individual work units than with specific job types.

Electronics retailer Best Buy is one of the many companies that have greatly improved its results by seeking to improve its Q12 scores. Interestingly, the company found that its best performing units benefited the most from efforts to raise its lowest Q12 scores, with sales and other performance metrics nearly doubling at the best units.

While Best Buy’s least successful units were also able to make some performance improvements, they lagged the gains seen in the better performing groups, further widening the gulf between them.

This suggests that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions for units with ineffective leadership and cultures, whereas stronger units can see huge benefits by addressing their few weaknesses.

How to Overcome Leadership Challenges in Large Businesses

Companies with more employees tend to have lower engagement scores, which drains productivity, negatively affects safety outcomes, and saps profitability.

Their rising discontent usually stems from several issues that tend to arise as a company grows in size.

One of the most prominent is that workers usually have less direct access to feedback from upper management. This can be alleviated by instituting an effective feedback system that carries information both uphill and downhill.

Employees should be encouraged to share feedback and concerns periodically, with the understanding that their opinions matter. Instituting regular performance review sessions can also be helpful.

Employees of large companies are more likely to feel that their work is less important to the company’s overall performance, giving them less satisfaction from their work.

This sense can be relieved by ensuring they understand how their work positively contributes to the company’s revenue and profits or how them doing good work helps other employees get their own work down more efficiently and enjoyably.

Employees at larger firms also tend to have less flexibility in their roles and may become dissatisfied by the monotony of their work.

Managers are often tempted to pigeon-hole employees into tightly-defined roles that make it easier for them to oversee and coordinate everything. Employees should be given more free rein to regularly grow their skills and be challenged with different aspects of the work process.

How Leaders Can Build A Positive Workplace Culture

Modern workplaces are becoming increasingly laid back in response to a growing body of evidence that shows that high-pressure work environments are extremely stressful for employees long-term.

That chronic stress leads to debilitating health issues that cost the healthcare system billions annually, causes massive employee turnover, and contributes to the majority of workplace accidents.

A less stressful, more tolerant and more diverse workforce can be cultivated in the following ways:

  • Having a zero tolerance policy towards prejudice, sexual harassment and bullying of any kind
  • Instituting transparent and fair processes for dealing with promotions and other important company decisions
  • Engaging in regular team-building exercises; these can be simple 10-minute games once a week
  • Allowing employees to take short technology breaks at regular intervals; forcing them to abstain from their devices for long stretches causes unnecessary stress
  • Axing poor performing and negative employees as soon as possible; they will drag down the entire team and may cause better employees to leave
  • Being a positive influence that shows empathy towards employees for missteps rather than seeking to cast blame
  • Rewarding employees for their work via positive reinforcement and other small perks

Being an effective leader is the difference between having a group of happy, productive employees, and a group of stressed-out and unproductive ones. In other words, it’s everything.

And with the right mindset and approach, just about anyone can become one.

What Makes Leaders Effective?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Jeff Yap
Jeff Yapp is the Founder and CEO of Wutznxt – a consulting agency located in Portland, Oregon. With over 30 years of professional experience, Jeff brings innovation into the marketing industry.
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