Jul 07, 2022

The science behind the 20 skills that make great leaders in the workplace

In 2021, one in two people resigned because of their unskilled manager, according to Gallup’s State of the American Manager report. This is likely due to the fact that manager promotions often have very little to do with leadership skills. People are generally promoted into management positions due to tenure or individual contributor performance. With that in mind, how can businesses know what makes a good leader in the workplace?

We’ve got some answers for you. In this multi-part series that discusses the skills that excellent leaders possess, we’ll first dive into the research behind leadership and what science says is necessary as a strong skills foundation for leadership. We will then follow on with deep dives into the 20 skills Lingo Live chose as the building blocks of our Skills Catalog.

Research shows what makes a good leader in the workplace 

With employee engagement at an all-time low, businesses should re-evaluate how they develop leaders. There’s enough research available to understand what makes a good leader in the workplace. Are companies applying it properly? 

Many companies still rely on the hierarchical pyramid approach where they promote successful individual contributors (IC). But, a good leader develops from more than just a successful IC experience. Great leadership comes from an intricate blend of traits, developmental opportunities and the right environment. 

The study, “The Future Trends in Leadership Development Practices and the Crucial Leadership Skills,” by Dimitra Iordanoglou, clearly shows that good leaders in the workplace share these traits: they are adaptable, culturally adept, and drive performance. They also rate high in soft skills.

In general, the skill-sets of great leaders fall under these key themes: 

  • Knowing oneself:  If you don’t know yourself, how can you hope to lead? The good news is that self-awareness can be practiced in order to experience what makes a good leader at work. It’s important to adopt the right techniques that work for you before you can lead your team. 
  • Interpersonal people skills:  building trust and relationships, influencing and coaching are all critical aspects of what makes a good leader in the workplace. Without these, leaders can’t unite people around a common cause. 
  • Performance and business management: effective leaders are adept at directing work and ensuring accountability. They are strategic decision-makers who challenge the status quo to drive transformation. 

Interestingly, the type of leadership quality you need is subtly different depending on where in the world you work due to cultural differences and the growth phase of a company. For example, a charismatic leader can propel a start-up forward. On the flip side, a calm and steady leader will safeguard a company’s stable growth.

Great leaders leverage communication to inspire 

Psychologist and leadership expert Daniel Goleman reminds us that “leadership is not domination but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal.” Long gone are the days when autocratic leadership was the epitome of what makes a good leader in the workplace. 

Regardless of whether you prioritize empathy over adaptability or vice versa, a leader isn’t a leader without followers who have bought into their vision. If leaders can’t communicate and inspire people, they can’t make the changes this world needs from its leaders. 

What makes a good leader in the workplace is exceptional communication. We’ve all heard of great communicators and the skill with which they leverage the language of leadership. Instinctively, we feel drawn to such leaders because they appeal to our emotions. With these, they paint a picture of a better future and draw us in to be a part of it. 

The best leaders in the workplace inspire through a high EQ

Daniel Goleman, alongside other researchers, shows that emotional intelligence is the foundation of what makes a good leader in the workplace. 

With emotional intelligence, great leaders create a sense of belonging. Moreover, what makes a good leader in the workplace means that they are open to ideas and they know how to influence. Regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, they use emotional intelligence to build a leadership identity that can adapt to complexity. This article, “The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World,” by Sunnie Guiles, related the outcomes of a survey of 195 leaders from over 30 global organizations. The results can be grouped into three categories centered around soft skills and emotional intelligence.

  1. Ethics: having high moral standards is important. So is understanding that the world is made of shades of grey and it isn’t simply a question of right versus wrong. Strong leaders balance ideas that benefit all and go beyond the personal ego.  
  2. Self-organizing: high-performing teams need clear goals. They also work best within a culture that supports co-learning and collaboration. Great leaders enable an environment where continuous improvement and ongoing feedback become the norm.
  3. Growth mindset: ongoing training is important but so is nurturing a growth culture. The best leaders adjust their communication to make learning a priority and make mistakes a catalyst for that learning. 

At Lingo Live, we incorporated these findings and more plus three other means of research and development that led to the creation of our Skills Catalog. They are:

  1. Internal data: we compiled and analyzed our data from hundreds of clients.
  2. External feedback: we reviewed our competencies map with a top global organizational consulting firm to better understand the research, the data, and the ecosystem in which leaders operate. 
  3. Internal advisory board:  we developed our own advisory board made up of leaders at top global organizations who hold decades of experience from a multitude of HR and L&D disciplines. With their final validation, we build the Lingo Live Skills Catalog.
What Makes a Good Leader in the Workplace?
Lingo Live Skills Catalog

Organizations and businesses should promote vertical development and not horizontal

Horizontal development focuses solely on just skills which may be useful for improving technical expertise. But, this method doesn’t transform behavioral change like vertical development. Vertical development ensures leaders reflect, develop insights and become wiser. All this is initially achieved through self-awareness. Self-awareness, the first skill within Lingo Live’s catalog under emotional intelligence, will be the topic of our first follow on article. 

Effective leadership is about balancing both the needs of the individual and that of the collective. You can teach leaders tools and techniques to do this of course. But, they need the right conditions to truly shift their mental model and behaviors if you want to drive changes in the workplace like increased productivity, engagement, and retention rates. 

The book, Maturing Leadership, How Adult Development Impacts Leadership “ describes that one of the most powerful ways to create the right environment to develop top leadership skills is through action inquiry. Coaches do this by providing a safe space to guide future leaders to investigate new ways of thinking and being. These leaders can safely test out new habits and behaviors based on radically different insights and alternative perspectives. This transformational experience is what drives behavior change in the workplace. At Lingo Live, we create this space during our one-on-one coaching sessions and encourage behavioral change by tasking our coachees to practice in their work environment what they experienced in their coaching session.  

Great leadership in the workplace happens when a leader’s way of thinking is disrupted. This makes them more open to change and more sensitive to different cultures. They become less attached to their worldview and they start making sense of their reality differently. Through this shift, they start valuing making a difference for the sake of the community rather than for their own sake. That’s the key to what makes a good leader in the workplace. 

How can you implement vertical development in your organization? 

  • Leadership coaching: at LingoLive, we start our coaching programs with a series of self-awareness sessions. From there, leaders develop and apply their skills at work to drive real behavior change and business results.
  • Cultural exposure: role model team members who’ve lived and worked abroad. Living in different cultures is a strong catalyst for change in becoming less rigid and more resilient to uncertainty. As an organization, you can encourage foreign placements. 
  • Peer-to-peer learning: it’s a vulnerable experience to stand up and share your inner thoughts and feelings with peers. But some of the best and most innovative ideas come from a brainstorming session with a mix of cross-functional employees in the same room. 

Take these learnings to build great leaders in your workplace 

Coaches are an important part of that process as are your teams and leaders’ peers in the feedback they provide. This process enables your leaders to self-reflect, gain insights into their behaviors and incorporate new leadership habits. 

Partner with Lingo Live to develop your leaders by aligning your L&D program with our scientifically backed Skills Catalog. In future articles, we will dive into the 20 skills and share understandings of why these skills are so important for leadership success.


Coaching, Company Culture, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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