18 Leadership Skills Examples: What Is the Essential Skillset for Successful Leaders?
What makes a great leader?
Leadership isn't just about being at the helm.
It's about humility, inspiring others, camaraderie, and driving strategic change. And at the core of every great leader are a set of essential leadership skills.
"It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory," suggests Nelson Mandella.
If you want to transform your people into exceptional leaders, you need to prioritize their leadership skills. Not doing so could undermine their potential for growth and the success of your organization.
This article will take you through the most effective leadership skills examples. We'll show you:
- How these skills make an impact.
- Examples of inspiring leaders who have consistently applied them.
From strategic thinking and emotional intelligence to decision-making and team-building, we've got them all covered. We'll delve into each skill, explaining its importance and providing practical advice on developing it.
💼 What are leadership skills?
Leadership skills are the abilities that allow a leader to guide, influence, and inspire a team toward achieving a common goal.
However, these skills aren't only for managerial or executive positions but also valuable for all your people—they enhance interpersonal relationships, decision-making, and team dynamics.
Keep in mind that leadership skills differ from managerial skills and competencies.
Leadership skills primarily involve the ability to inspire and influence others, drive vision and purpose, and foster a positive and collaborative environment. On the other hand, managerial skills are more focused on tasks such as planning, organizing, coordinating resources, and overseeing the execution of strategies to meet specific business goals.
🤹🏽 What makes an effective leader? 9 Management and leadership skills examples
Effective leaders inspire their teams, drive progress toward goals, and foster a positive work culture. They do this by developing strong leadership skills over their careers.
Here are 9 examples of crucial leadership skills that are essential for an effective leader.
Influential leaders have a clear and compelling vision for the future. They can communicate their vision to inspire and motivate their people.
Leaders with high emotional intelligence understand their emotions and how to manage them and are good at empathizing with others.
This means they can build strong relationships and create a supportive and understanding environment.
Leaders with strong communication skills are able to clearly convey their expectations, give effective feedback, and set up an environment for open and honest communication in their teams.
Effective leaders know how to delegate well. They're skilled at entrusting tasks to people based on their strengths and capabilities.
This gives leaders more time for value-adding activities, such as strategic thinking. Better delegation also helps to build the skills and capabilities of others in their teams.
Good leaders demonstrate resilience. They can deal with challenges as they arise, bounce back from demanding situations, and maintain morale when required.
➡️ Discover our 8-step guide to resilience training in the workspace.
Good leaders are empathetic towards their team and their colleagues. They can understand and share others' feelings. They're good at listening to people, relating to their perspectives, and responding compassionately.
Good leaders are skilled at building cohesive, collaborative teams. They know how to foster camaraderie and mutual respect among their people, promoting increased productivity and job satisfaction.
Effective leaders have well-developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They can deal with complex situations and think creatively to resolve them.
🧠 Discover how to foster critical thinking in the workplace to drive better results. We included 6 brain exercises to share with your leaders.
Capable leaders are flexible and can adapt to changing circumstances. They're open-minded, can adjust strategies, foster innovation, and lead change to deal with evolving situations.
➡️ Unlock your leaders' full potential with a leadership competency model that cultivates essential leadership skills.
🤩 9 Examples of leadership skills of exceptional leaders
Leadership skill is about more than a list of skills on your resume, having a positive attitude, or taking on a leadership role. It's about bringing to life the essential skills for building successful, high-performing teams.
Here are 9 examples of great leaders who highlight the leadership skills required to drive their people and organizations to success.
Strategic thinking leaders have a vision that goes beyond mere planning. They anticipate future challenges and make informed decisions that align with long-term objectives.
Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, showed exceptional strategic thinking. When he took charge of the company in 2006, it was near bankruptcy. But Mulally's strategic vision returned the company to profitability through his "One Ford" plan, which:
- Brought together all Ford employees as a global team.
- Leveraged Ford's knowledge base and technology.
- Focused on core products, i.e., popular cars and trucks.
- Strengthened the company's financial situation.
Innovation is the ability to generate novel and valuable ideas. Innovative leaders encourage risk-taking and creativity among their people. They are willing to challenge the status quo to drive improvement and growth.
"The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting; the cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament," said Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and renowned for his innovative leadership.
Jobs cultivated innovation at Apple through the following principles:
- Do what you love, emphasizing passion as the basis of innovation.
- Put a dent in the universe based on a clear, compelling vision.
- Kick-start your brain through creative thinking and broad perspectives.
- Sell dreams, not products, through storytelling and emotional connections through marketing.
- Say no to 1,000 things and instead focus on what works.
- Create insanely great experiences, and exceed customer expectations.
- Master the message through practice to make communication compelling.
Agile leaders are adaptable and can thrive in rapidly changing environments. They can pivot when required and lead their people to respond to unexpected situations.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, showed exemplary agility in pivoting Microsoft toward evolving technologies after he landed the job in 2014. He did this by:
- Decentralizing decision-making, granting those with expertise more authority for problem-solving and finding solutions.
- Bringing innovation to the forefront by transforming how people think, collaborate, and create through independent thinking, using data, experimentation, and validation.
- Shifting metrics toward value creation rather than revenue generation, e.g., repositioning Azure, a Microsoft product, from a revenue focus to a customer focus, driving customer satisfaction and loyalty.
- Initiating a cultural shift toward appreciating hands-on creativity and collaboration—a notable change from previous leadership styles at Microsoft.
People enablement is about providing employees with everything they need to develop their abilities and contribute their best work. When your people feel enabled, they'll feel valued and supported and be more productive and engaged.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, is well known for his people-centric leadership approach. He believed that caring for his people would lead to better business outcomes, captured by his statement, "Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients."
Branson's leadership philosophy was characterized by empowering and energizing his people, resulting in stronger performance and higher self-esteem. He developed an organizational structure that featured a sense of ownership and autonomy, motivating his people to achieve organizational goals.
Authentic leaders are genuine and transparent. They build trust among their people by being true to their values and beliefs.
Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, is a celebrated leader for his authentic approach. Having grown up in a Brooklyn housing project under challenging circumstances, Schultz set out to "build a company that my father, a blue-collar worker and World War II veteran, never had a chance to work for."
Schultz's leadership authenticity translated to values-based outcomes, from championing employee benefits—healthcare for part-time employees, free college tuition, and stock ownership—to advocating for social issues. This ushered loyalty and commitment from his people, driving significant expansion and profitability for Starbucks during his tenure.
Leaders who practice inclusivity value and leverage diversity in their organizations. This creates an environment where everyone feels welcome and appreciated, regardless of their background or identity, encouraging them to contribute to personal and organizational outcomes.
Indra Nooyi was an outstanding advocate of inclusive leadership during her time as CEO of PepsiCo. She raised the idea of diversity and inclusion as a responsibility for everyone in the organization, from herself as CEO down to front-line workers.
Nooyi encouraged hiring from the broadest possible talent pool, harnessing its diversity and ensuring that employees feel they matter, whatever their background. This also translated to senior appointments, highlighting the importance of diversity at the board level and setting up a matrix to promote diversity in future board appointments.
Nooyi's inclusive approach helped steer PepsiCo to more robust and sustainable business performance, almost doubling its revenue during her 12-year reign.
➡️ Harness your entire talent pool with these 32 practical ways to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your organization.
Servant leadership is the practice of leading by serving others. It's a style of leadership that promotes empathy, collaboration, and mutual respect. Servant leaders prioritize their team's and organization's needs over their own.
Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership in 1970. "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first," explains Greenleaf, "Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead."
During his 38-year career at AT&T, Greenleaf's experience and actions laid the foundations of his servant leadership philosophy, including:
- Originating the world's first corporate assessment center.
- Promoting the first female and African American workers to non-menial positions.
- Inviting theologians and psychologists to educate executives on the implications of corporate decisions.
Servant leadership recognizes that organizations and employees need each other, and both can benefit from an attitude of service. This creates trust and encourages teams to "accomplish great things together," suggests Donald Hatter, an expert on persuasion.
Remote leadership involves leading a team dispersed over different geographies and time zones. It's become more important over recent years and came to the fore during the pandemic of 2020–21.
Successful remote leadership emphasizes a range of skills beyond traditional leadership, including frequent (digital) communications, building trust without physical interaction, embracing worker flexibility across different circumstances and time zones, and a focus on outcomes rather than time spent on tasks.
Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, the company that created WordPress, is a champion of remote leadership. He oversees nearly 2,000 employees in 95 countries, speaking over 120 languages.
Mullenweg showcases his remote leadership expertise by mapping out a path for traditional (in-person) companies to move to a successful remote model. He calls this the Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy. This framework explains how companies can move through progressive stages and make the most of distributed work so they can exceed their previous in-person capabilities.
➡️ Looking to lead, motivate, and inspire your distributed teams? Check out our tips on how to be a great remote leader.
Resilient leaders show durability and buoyancy characteristics and can sustain their leadership, even in the face of adversities or setbacks.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is a classic example of a resilient leader. Having faced early skepticism, he steered Amazon through challenging times (e.g., the dot-com era of the early 2000s) as it grew from a simple online bookseller to a global retail behemoth.
Jeff Bezos has consistently demonstrated leadership resilience by overcoming setbacks, adapting to circumstances, and continually striving towards his goals.
➡️ Use the inspiration from these great leaders to customize your leaders' next development plans.
👫 5 Inspiring examples of leaders with strong leadership skills
Exceptional leaders have the skills and abilities to forge success for their people and organizations—here are 5 inspiring examples.
Tony Hsieh of Zappos
Tony Hsieh transformed Zappos from a small online shoe retailer to a highly successful company. His approach to leadership featured an ethos of happiness, i.e., exceptional customer service through happy employees.
Hsieh's focus on keeping his people happy translated into relationship building among his people, a unique approach to onboarding new hires, and an egalitarian performance review process that encourages growth and learning.
Having died in a tragic accident in 2020, Hsieh's legacy as a successful leader features his unwavering commitment to a culture of happiness and the exceptional customer service standards that this generated.
👠 There's a lot to learn from Zappos' key people processes. Discover our deep dives on employee onboarding at Zappos and employee performance reviews at Zappos.
Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines
Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines, demonstrated a relentless dedication to employee engagement in his leadership approach.
Employee engagement was the foundation of Southwest's success, driving empowered employees who were encouraged to express individuality and creativity. This led to Southwest having one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the airline industry.
Kelleher's commitment to his people translated to job security as well—during his tenure, Southwest had no layoffs, furloughs, or pay cuts, despite being a heavily unionized airline. His leadership legacy is a testament to the power of an engaged and empowered workforce.
➡️ We discuss more on Southwest Airlines and 10 equally inspiring examples in our article on companies offering outstanding employee engagement experiences.
Sundar Pichai of Google
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, came from humble beginnings to lead one of the most successful technology companies in history. His leadership approach features humility, collaboration, team building, and recognizing others' successes.
Pichai is a celebrated leader who continues to have a significant impact at Google. He demonstrates several prominent leadership skills—visionary thinking, innovation, diversity, and embracing growth through teamwork and collaboration.
➡️ Learn about employee performance reviews at Google to see how goal-setting, employee satisfaction, and a "team first" mindset drive exceptional performance.
Yamini Rangan of Hubspot
Yamini Rangan, CEO of Hubspot, is a leader known for her execution ability, customer-centric approach, collaborative style, and vision for growth.
"Effective leaders run marathons, not sprints," explains Rangan, "and they communicate why the team needs to do something, not how they need to do something."
Rangan highlights three qualities that characterize her leadership approach:
- Integrity—be transparent and stick to your word.
- Authenticity—recognize who you are and don't try to be someone else.
- Inspirational—create change and motivate others to bring their best.
Mary Barra of General Motors
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors (GM), is the first woman to lead a giant US automaker.
Barra has shown significant leadership skills during her tenure, spearheading initiatives into electric and autonomous vehicles, championing gender equity and even pivoting GM's operations to manufacturing life-supporting ventilation systems during the 2020 pandemic.
A feature of Barra's leadership is her strategic vision—she's made significant strides in steering GM towards an electric vehicle future amidst unprecedented challenges and a changing automotive landscape.
Her commitment to innovation and customer-centric accountability has garnered widespread praise, driving the company's success in a highly competitive industry.
💪 11 Ways to improve or develop effective leadership skills
So, how can you nurture and grow your emerging leaders to cultivate success? Here are 11 actionable strategies to help them develop effective leadership skills.
1. Training and development programs
You can significantly boost leadership skills with training and development programs focusing on core leadership training topics, such as communication, conflict resolution, coaching, and emotional intelligence.
The best programs cater to different learning styles by including a blend of learning methods, such as workshops, seminars, e-learning, and case studies.
➡️ Looking for a targeted program to develop your next generation of leaders? Here's a customizable leadership training template to cultivate the core leadership skills they'll need.
2. Vertical development for leaders
Vertical development focuses on developing a depth of thinking and perspective-taking abilities. This is particularly important for emerging leaders in an increasingly complex business environment, argues Nick Petrie of the Center for Creative Leadership.
The traditional methods of developing leadership skills—training, on-the-job experience, mentoring, etc.—are still valid but are no longer adequate, suggests Petrie. One way to address this is to boost your organization's leadership development program with a vertical development paradigm.
Vertical development focuses on the stages of cognitive development that leaders progress through. It's different from horizontal growth, which focuses on competencies and is about the evolution of leaders' thinking and perception of their environments.
Vertical development enhances leaders' ability to perform in complex situations—they can think more strategically, adapt faster, and lead change more effectively with higher levels of cognitive development.
➡️ Develop the potential of your emerging leaders with powerful 21st Century leadership skills that focus on adaptability, strategic thinking, and innovation.
3. Mentorship and coaching
Pairing your emerging leaders with experienced mentors and coaches is a powerful to way develop good leadership skills. They can offer personal guidance, real-life examples, and a 'living and breathing' testimony to what effective leadership is all about.
4. Setting clear goals and expectations
Leaders should communicate what they expect from their teams to get the most from their teams.
Leaders can enhance their team's alignment and boost productivity by clearly articulating goals and expectations.
Leadership smart goals are one way for leaders to convey goals that are as effective as possible. These are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals. They are designed to dispel ambiguity and set actionable and easy-to-monitor expectations.
5. Creating a continuous learning culture
By encouraging a culture of continuous learning, leaders and their teams can stay up-to-date with industry trends and be better equipped for strategic innovation.
Ways in which leaders can foster a culture of learning include:
- Supporting their people with ongoing professional development.
- Offering the right resources, e.g., through a customized learning management system, diversified learning materials, or on-the-job training.
- Creating tailored coaching sessions.
- Recognizing and celebrating the learning achievements of their people.
6. Social learning
Networking and participating in peer communities is a way to boost leadership abilities by providing unique learning opportunities. Your leaders can learn from the insights of others, particularly if they've faced similar challenges to what your leaders may be experiencing.
➡️ Read more about how Zavvy helped Freeletics create a social learning routine for their leaders.
7. Developing leadership pipelines
Identify and develop emerging leaders by offering tailored development programs and leadership opportunities.
Consider using a structured approach such as the 9-box model to help support your decision-making.
The 9-box model is a 3x3 matrix of performance vs. potential (separated into high, medium, and low) that allows you to identify and categorize your emerging leaders. It's a versatile and balanced way to highlight leadership skills across your organization in a straightforward and versatile manner.
Other ways to develop leadership in your organization include:
- Succession planning—Give your emerging leaders clear opportunities for progress and ensure a smooth transition during handovers of business-critical roles.
- Cross-functional training—Cultivate diverse skills and broaden your leaders' understanding of your business by placing them in different departments or projects outside of their standard expertise.
- Action learning projects—Develop valuable leadership skills by giving your leaders experiential learning through practical, hands-on projects and real-world business problems.
➡️ Harness the potential of your emerging leaders with a thoughtful succession plan template that sets them up for success.
8. Executives leading by example
By modeling the behaviors and attitudes they want to see in their teams, your existing executives can demonstrate great leadership skills and lead by example.
By living and breathing empathy, strategic thinking, resilience, and other essential leadership skills, senior executives can motivate and inspire your organization's aspirational leaders.
9. Fostering a feedback culture
Encourage open and constructive feedback through regular performance reviews and feedback sessions. This helps provide timely guidance for your leaders and improves their leadership skills.
You can also leverage a 360 feedback approach to identify and cultivate leadership talent. By asking the right questions in an open and honest forum and seeking feedback from a wide range of colleagues, you can assess your people's leadership skills and potential.
❓ Discover our collection of 360 feedback questions for leadership. You will find 44 sample questions to evaluate your managers and discover emerging leaders.
10. Embracing diversity and inclusion
Foster a diverse and inclusive culture to mobilize the full potential of your workforce. Encourage contributions from everyone by making them feel valued and belong at your organization.
Inclusive leadership promotes creativity and innovation—when all of your people feel that their voices are being heard, you'll get better engagement from your workforce, reflecting its diversity.
🏳️🌈 Discover 32 ways to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.
11. Promoting work-life balance
By supporting a work-life balance, including hybrid, remote, or alternative work arrangements, your leaders show that they understand and are empathetic toward the different personal circumstances of their team.
Not only will this make life easier for your people and help prevent overworking, but it also boosts productivity and morale.
➡️ Develop your leaders and their skills with Zavvy
At Zavvy, we know what skills matter to your emerging leaders and how to cultivate them for success.
Through Zavvy's innovative tools, you'll help elevate the leadership potential of your people by giving them the development pathway and essential skills that they need:
- 🌱 Employee development: Through personalized development plans, mentorship programs, or targeted learning opportunities, Zavvy empowers your employees to develop the leadership skills required for success.
- 👩🎓 Access to world-class training: From leadership development to communication skills, Zavvy offers a world-class training library with thousands of resources. These training materials are designed to bridge skill gaps and equip leaders with the essential competencies needed to excel in their roles.
- 🔁 Insightful performance reviews: Effective performance reviews are vital for identifying areas of improvement and recognizing achievements. Our customizable 360 feedback software allows for upward, downward, and self-evaluation feedback, providing a well-rounded view of an individual's strengths and areas for development. By leveraging Zavvy's performance review tools, you can have constructive conversations, set actionable goals, and support your employees' leadership journey.
📅 Book a free 30-minute demo to see how you can prepare your leaders more effectively with Zavvy.
What are examples of leadership skills?
Leadership skills are necessary to guide, motivate, and lead teams effectively. They include strategic thinking, communication skills, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, empathy, inclusivity, and adaptability.
Why are leadership skills important?
Leadership skills play a decisive role in influencing the success and sustainability of organizations. They help leaders be more effective in motivating their teams, providing clear strategic direction, fostering innovation, and creating an inclusive and engaging workplace culture.
What are the 7 core skills of a leader?
Seven core leadership skills are vision, problem-solving, communication skills, decision-making, emotional intelligence, team building, and delegation.
What are the 5 people-leadership skills?
Five people-leadership skills are empathy, communication, motivation, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.
What is leadership skills development?
Leadership skills development refers to enhancing the ability to lead effectively. It involves training and education, coaching and mentoring, self-study, professional experience, and feedback and reflection.