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Forget the stereotypical leadership image of a buttoned-up person in a gray suit hauling around a hefty briefcase. Today, standout leaders come in all shapes and sizes. She could be a blue jeans-clad marketing student, running a major ecommerce company out of her dorm room. He might be the next salt-and-pepper-haired, barefoot Steve Jobs, presenting a groundbreaking new device at a major industry conference.
"Our research indicates that what really matters is that leaders are able to create enthusiasm, empower their people, instill confidence and be inspiring to the people around them," says Peter Handal, chief executive of New York City-based Dale Carnegie Training, a leadership-training company.
That's a tall order. However, as different as leaders are today, there are some things great leaders do every day. Here, Handal shares his five keys for effective leadership:
1. Face challenges.
Great leaders are brave enough to face up to challenging situations and deal with them honestly. Whether it's steering through a business downturn or getting struggling employees back on track, effective leaders meet these challenges openly. Regular communications with your staff, informing them of both good news and how the company is reacting to challenges will go a long way toward making employees feel like you trust them and that they're unlikely to be hit with unpleasant surprises.
"The gossip at the coffee machine is usually 10 times worse than reality," Handal says. "Employees need to see their leaders out there, confronting that reality head-on."
2. Win trust.
Employees are more loyal and enthusiastic when they work in an environment run by people they trust. Building that trust can be done in many ways. The first is to show employees that you care about them, Handal says. Take an interest in your employees beyond the workplace. Don't pry, he advises, but ask about an employee's child's baseball game or college graduation. Let your employees know that you're interested in their success and discuss their career paths with them regularly.
When employees, vendors or others make mistakes, don't reprimand or correct them in anger. Instead, calmly explain the situation and why their behavior or actions weren't correct, as well as what you expect in the future. When people know that you aren't going to berate them and that you have their best interests at heart, they're going to trust you, Handal says.
3. Be authentic.
If you're not a suit, don't try to be one. Employees and others dealing with your company will be able to tell if you're just pretending to be someone you're not, Handal says. That could make them question what else about you might be inauthentic. Have a passion for funky shoes? Wear them. Are you an enthusiastic and hilarious presenter? Get them laughing. Use your strengths and personality traits to develop your personal leadership style, Handal says.
4. Earn respect.
When you conduct yourself in an ethical way and model the traits you want to see in others, you earn the respect of those around you. Leaders who are perceived as not "walking their talk" typically don't get very far, Handal says. This contributes to employees and other stakeholders having pride in the company, which is an essential part of engagement, Handal says. Also, customers are less likely to do business with a company if they don't respect its values or leadership.
5. Stay curious.
Good leaders remain intellectually curious and committed to learning. They're inquisitive and always looking for new ideas, insights and information. Handal says the best leaders understand that innovation and new approaches can come from many places and are always on the lookout for knowledge or people who might inform them and give them an advantage.
"The most successful leaders I know are truly very curious people. They're interested in the things around them and that contributes to their vision," Handal says.