7 Ways to Become a Better Leader

Leadership is a skill that can be continually strengthened. Here's how.

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By Laura Entis

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If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to first be a successful leader. After all, motivating and inspiring your team to come in every day and do their best work is arguably the single most important aspect of the job.

Discussions of leadership often center on overused tropes, including the rote phrase 'Leaders are born, not made.' But here at Entrepreneur.com, we believe that leadership is a quality that can be learned and then continuously strengthened. Some of our most celebrated business leaders didn't start out that way -- instead, they matured into their leadership roles by actively responding to the world around them, re-evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and -- perhaps most importantly -- learning from their failures.

Here's what you need to keep in mind if you want to strengthen your leadership muscle.

1. Don't be scared to fail big.

"I am such a big believer in this. I could give you a long list of things I have done wrong," says self-made billionaire Michael Rubin. Of particular note was being more than $200,000 bankrupt at 16.

Rubin says that he often hears from aspiring entrepreneurs about their great ideas, but they are consistently blocked by some variety of fear. Failure is ok and good, Rubin says, as long as you are able to fail forward, i.e. you learn from each and every mistake.

"I like to fail," he says. "I have had so many failures and each time I have failed, I have figured out how to grow." Read More: The Brilliance of Failure, In the Words of a Self-Made Billionaire

2. Banish self-doubt by acknowledging your accomplishments.

A lack of confidence can stop you from taking charge. "You overestimate the risk in your mind," says Marci G. Fox author of Think Confident, Be Confident (Perigee Trade, 2009). "You see yourself as more vulnerable, and you forget how capable and competent you are." Feelings of anxiety or doubt can distort your self-image; we're often our own worst critics. Fox recommends focusing on daily successes (no matter how small) in order to keep self-doubt at bay. "Often, we're so focused on what we haven't done that we can't accurately see our progress," she says. If you're able to celebrate your past accomplishments and keep your confidence level high, making the necessary tough or unpopular calls becomes more doable. Read More: How to Think Like a Confident Leader

3. Don't settle for the standard solution.

If you want to create a truly outstanding product or service, you need to be thinking a step ahead of the pack. Our brains are wired to recycle ideas we've already heard from others, but independent thinking can be learned, says Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist at University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking (Perigee Trade, 2012).

Contrary to what you might think, open-ended problems are the enemy of novel solutions. "If you don't have constraints, the first things you'll come up with are the most accessible memories," says Markman. "They'll be really similar to what others have done before." He also recommends ruling out elements of the solution that are most expected or obvious, considering ideas that don't seem compatible, and zooming out to see variables that others might overlook. Read More: How to Break the Mold and Be an Independent Thinker

4. Focus on results, not style.

"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. It's a tall order, but luckily, there are many ways to achieve these same standout results. Inspiring leaders come in all different forms -- introvert, extrovert, casual, formal you name it. Authentic leadership styles fall on a broad spectrum; it's the results that matter, not the package. Read More: 5 Keys to Inspiring Leadership, No Matter Your Style

5. Always keep improving.

Some studies report that a third of what it takes to be a good leader is inherited, but that just means the other two thirds are up for grabs, says Angelo Kinicki, organizational culture expert and professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. True, some people are naturally more in control than others, but discipline can be strengthened and re-enforced with practice, Kinicki says. Read More: Leadership: Nurture or Nature?

6. Learn to act like an introvert and an extrovert.

The business world has never been altogether friendly to introverts. Yet roughly four in 10 top executives -- including Larry Page, co-founder and now CEO of Google -- identify as one. What's more, their success may not come despite their natural introversion, but because of it, an idea backed up by new research suggesting introverts foster a better team environment than their more outgoing peers.

It's worth noting, however, that the most successful introverts have also mastered the ability to act like extroverts, a reminder that learning how to fake it is still an important tool in a leader's arsenal. Read More: Why Introverts and Comedians Make Great Leaders

7. Cultivate generosity.

Creating an organizational culture of generosity is healthy for business, says Patricia Thompson, an Atlanta-based corporate psychologist and president of Silver Lining Psychology. "Research shows that engaging in acts of kindness is associated with greater happiness," she says. While being stressed and in a negative mood puts our bodies into fight-or-flight mode and limits our range of thoughts, making us less effective problem solvers, positive emotions can improve productivity and inspire innovation.

In addition, a culture of generosity encourages employees to work collaboratively. It also gives employees a sense that what they are doing is valuable: "Having opportunities to feel they're getting fulfilment through their work and not just a paycheck is increasingly important," says Thompson. Read More: Make Gratitude a Part of Your Company Culture

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for Fortune.com's Venture section.

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