Assessing Leadership

See also:Leadership Styles

Most of us like to think of ourselves as leaders, and in business we all exhibit leadership qualities whether we are leading a team, looking to impress the boss, or just to get things done.

No matter where you are on the leadership ladder or how evolved you think your leadership skills are, I believe that anyone looking to further their leadership abilities needs to constantly be developing the traits described below.

Now, I’m no fan of recruiting people through checklists; the ideas written below are a guide. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and may have an ‘x factor’ that can’t be adequately described, or perhaps even overrides certain deficiencies.

Leadership Mindset

Leadership is all about mindset; the most charismatic, communicatively gifted, knowledgeable, skilled individual will not make a good leader if they don’t want to be a leader, or if they have a negative or fearful mindset.

A leader can answer all the questions below affirmatively:

  • Do I want to be a leader?
  • Can I empathise with different types of people?
  • Can I change how I communicate depending on the situation?
  • Can I think critically and criticise constructively?
  • Can I cope with stress?
  • Am I flexible when it comes to different tasks?
  • Can I handle fear and anxiety?

Fear is the greatest threat to a balanced mindset. It usually manifests itself as indecision or procrastination on a crippling sort of level.

A leader must be courageous; everyone feels fear, and yes even the greatest leaders feel anxiety when they have to make a difficult decision or inspire a room of people who’ve lost both morale and motivation. Fear and worry about business decisions, especially ones that will affect other people, are normal - but a real leader has to power through and make those decisions, and they have to be brave enough to accept the consequences.

See our pages: The Importance of Mindset, What is Charisma?, Empathy and Courage, Being Brave for more information.


Leadership is a skill that can be natural and built upon, or purely learned.  Experience is vital to building leadership, and that only really comes with some sort of leadership position.

Some typical skills in a leader are listed below. If you don’t have them, you probably should work on them.

A leader:

  • Is able to utilise those around them to the benefit of the task, without manipulation and in a way that is mutually acceptable.
  • Can strategise and stand back in an attempt to see a wider view of the situation.
  • Communicates what is happening, and what they want to happen, so others can understand in detail.
  • Listens to support or advice but is capable of acting without it.
  • Develops their team.
  • Deals with problems diplomatically and empathetically.
  • Considers their options without procrastinating and is able to make decisions.

Communication is vital to all of these skills, and completely essential to good leadership.

Almost every leader has to communicate in different ways every day; maybe negotiations require diplomacy and reservation, then a staff meeting requires more openness but more directness too. Flipping between these modes of communication is no easy task, but becomes natural with effort over time and with experience.

See our pages: Communication Skills, Strategic Thinking, Effective Listening and Decision Making for more information.


Knowledge of their own business is something most leaders need quite a lot of, and will naturally have.

There are exceptions; often senior positions may see a consultant parachuted in, or someone with little knowledge of a role may need to replace someone else in an emergency, but these are all fairly rare.

I can’t tell you what you need to know about the organisation where you are in a leadership position, but I think “the more the better” might be a good phrase to use.

Outside of the specifics, a leader should have the following knowledge:

  • Knowledge of themselves, their strengths, and limitations.
  • An understanding of their position and the position of others in organisational hierarchy, and the responsibilities attached.
  • An awareness of their own objectives and parameters.
  • An understanding the roles of their teams, or the individual roles within their team.
  • Knowledge of the people around them; knowing their wants, opinions, and their agendas, and their relationships with each other.

The most important thing a leader can know is people. Not just the people around them, but people in general. Whilst everyone is different, people do follow patterns and behave in ways that can be predicted and understood. By understanding people and empathising with them, a leader can make a group more efficient, prevent conflict, and identify other leaders as well as those suitable for other roles.

See our pages: Effective Team Working Skills, Team Roles, Lifelong Learning and Emotional Intelligence for more information.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

How To Become A Better Leader

Everyone, no matter how good they are, can become better at leading others.

I cannot stress enough how much increasing your own interpersonal skills will increase your ability as a leader; good interpersonal skills make leadership more comfortable, the position more manageable, and decisions more effective.

Other than interpersonal skills, experience is vital and earned only by going through different situations, self-assessment, and willingness to adapt. It can had be hard to think about self-improvement when managing others; just by leading we can get better at leading, but if we’re conscious of how we can grow and make an effort to focus on those areas, development potential is vastly improved.

Here are some very general activities you can do when leading others that will improve your ability:

  • Resolve conflicts - a great way to understand people and hear viewpoints you may be unfamiliar with.
  • Assess yourself and perhaps ask someone you can trust for an honest opinion on your ability.
  • Be bold in your actions and take time to explain them - a great way to help you visualise your own plans and better your public speaking skills.
  • Listen to what others say and respond appropriately.
  • Think of alternate ways of doings things, no matter how out-of-the-box.
  • Take challenges and problems head-on, and chalk any failures up as important experiences.

These traits are great to assess your own leadership ability and that of others, but they cannot touch on some intangible qualities leaders and potential leaders may have. I think that the most revealing answer, if given honestly, is to the question ‘why do you want to lead?’

If the answer is a selfish one, it does not necessarily mean the individual answering, yourself or someone else, is not a good leader. Being able to give a more selfless answer however, such as ‘because I can do things better’, is a sign that leadership may come more naturally and be more externally focused.

Leadership really is about what you can do for other people. If you remember that, the rest will follow.

About the Author

Nick Smallman is the founder and chief executive of Working Voices, a global communications training consultancy that teaches leadership, interpersonal and presentation skills to businesses from bases in New York, London and Hong Kong.

In addition to his day job running Working Voices, Nick has written for and been interviewed by the BBC, Huffington Post and