The word “leader” tends to conjure images of that C-suite executive with a corner office and growing team of direct reports. But the truth is, leaders exist at all levels of an organization. You, yourself, can be a leader—no matter the stage of your career.

In a recent Facebook Live session with Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, Kirstin Lynde, founder and principal at leadership development firm Catalyze Associates, offers her advice to those looking to become leaders.

What Is Leadership?

Leadership "is all about influencing people,” Lynde said. “Leadership is something that you don’t actually have to wait until you’re a formal leader with five or 10 direct reports to practice.”

Anyone can exercise influence at work. According to Lynde, you can display leadership by being:

  • The go-to person on a certain subject within your organization
  • Someone who thinks creatively and frequently shares ideas in meetings
  • An active listener and consensus builder
  • The colleague who’s good at making everyone feel included and valued on the team
  • A person who’s effective at articulating how he or she thinks the organization should move forward

If you aspire to become a leader at work, here are some qualities of effective leaders to consider developing, and a step-by-step framework to become an effective leader.


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Qualities of Effective Leaders

It’s true that anyone can be a leader, but there are certain characteristics that are common among successful leaders. Consider developing these relevant leadership skills and abilities.

1. Communication Skills

Successful leaders almost always have exceptional communication skills. By developing your leadership communication skills, you’ll be able to better articulate your vision and foster a more collaborative environment. You should also keep an open line of communication with your team to remain transparent about what you’re doing and what needs to be done.

2. An Innovative Mindset

Simply put, innovation in business refers to generating new ideas and approaches to solve existing business problems and meet organizational objectives. Great leaders foster innovation in the workplace and are always looking for new and improved ways to do things that will help the business overcome organizational change.

3. Decision-Making Capabilities

Effective leaders need to make strategic business decisions under pressure with a limited amount of information, both individually and with their teams. Following a specific decision-making process will help you guide your decisions and act in the best interest of your company.

4. Emotional Intelligence

To be an influential leader, you need to possess emotional intelligence, which is the ability to understand your own emotions and influence others'. Emotionally intelligent leaders also master empathy. Research shows that empathetic leaders perform more than 40 percent higher in coaching, engaging others, and decision-making.

To help develop these leadership capabilities and become an effective leader, follow the leadership self-development model below.

How to Be an Effective Leader

If you want to become an effective leader, you first need to evaluate who you are as a communicator and collaborator, and be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses.

“We all have our behavioral styles and typical approaches that have been baked into us since we were young,” Lynde said. “Some of those styles and approaches work well when you become a leader, and some of them can hold you back.”

Once you’ve assessed your work style, it’s easier to determine which goals to set in order to grow as a leader. Perhaps it’s that you need to improve how you provide feedback, or that you want to become better at spotting business opportunities. Whatever your objective, it should directly relate to how you influence others. In turn, your boss and colleagues should be incorporated into the goal-setting process.

Bernstein and Lynde have created a unique leadership self-development model, called PACE. Each letter in PACE stands for steps you can take to become more effective in your organization—Pick, Apprise, Collect, and Elicit—and are outlined below.

1. Pick a Goal

It’s easier to pick one goal than trying to fix multiple areas at once. If you’re not sure where to start, turn to your colleagues for guidance. It could be as simple as telling your boss, “I have aspirations of advancing into manager-level roles. Can you tell me what you think are the two or three biggest skill sets I need to develop to get there?” Or, “I want to get better at my role and improve as a teammate. How do you think I could have a more positive impact?”

“If the goal of leaders is to influence others more effectively, you need to have conversations with other people about how you can do better at contributing to the group and interacting with others,” Lynde said. “You shouldn’t have to wait until someone signs you up for a leadership development program.”

2. Apprise Others of Your Goal

Once you’ve settled on a goal, share it with those you work most closely with whom you trust. Not only will the process hold you more accountable to achieving your goals, but it can elevate your professional relationships.

Research by Harvard Business School Professors Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino shows that asking for advice makes a good impression. And the more candid you are about your goals, the more others feel comfortable asking for feedback in return—leading to mutually beneficial relationships that can grow your network.

By enlisting others in your professional development, it’s also more likely that your colleagues will recognize and publicly acknowledge the positive changes you make.

“It’s often hard to change other people’s perception of us,” Lynde said. “In order to break through and change perceptions, you often can benefit greatly by letting other people know what you’re doing, so that when you do it, they see it.”

3. Collect Ideas

Simply sharing your goal isn’t enough. You also want to collect ideas on how you can improve. If your colleague is strong in the area you’re trying to grow in, Lynde encourages telling him or her that and asking, “By next week, I’d love feedback. Can you tell me two ideas on how I can do better in this specific area?”

What you want to avoid is putting your co-workers on the spot. Give them time to formulate ideas. You should also avoid asking, “How can I improve?” Not only is the question too broad, but your peers might shy away from providing honest, actionable feedback out of fear they could unintentionally insult you by highlighting an unknown weakness.

4. Elicit Feedback

Once you’ve collected ideas and started working toward your goal, ask for feedback on how you’re doing. You should give yourself enough time to actually make some headway—rather, don’t ask for feedback within the first week. Regularly check in with those you shared your goal with, though, and chart your progress.

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Remember: It’s an Iterative Process

As you work through each step of the PACE framework, what’s important to remember is that this is an iterative and continuous process. You can’t take one workshop and say you’ve now learned how to influence others; every leader is a work in progress. What’s important is that you start developing yourself as a leader early in your career.

“It’s gotten harder to develop leadership abilities the longer I’ve waited,” Bernstein said. “Once you’re in the role, it’s much harder to admit the shortcomings than to admit them before you’re there.”

So start with that honest self-assessment and work from there.

“It’s all about building up your own self-awareness of who you are and how you come across,” Lynde said. “And then it’s about taking very real, tangible steps in your day-to-day life—starting immediately.”

Do you want to enhance your leadership skills? Download our free leadership e-book and explore our online course Leadership Principles to discover how you can become a more effective leader and unleash the potential in yourself and others.

This post was updated on May 13, 2021. It was originally published on August 31, 2018.

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.