There is no doubt that leadership can be a complicated topic. There seems to be no end to the theories and concepts about leadership and how to practice or teach it. It can be especially tough for those just getting started. The truth is that there really is no magic key or guide. Leadership is like a big cauldron that is filled with the ingredients you put in it. Some make great soups; others will make wet trash. In a lot of ways, it’s an art that requires training, experimentation and lots of practice.

Many of the secrets of leadership are still being discovered though. Leaders should cut themselves a little slack if they find that they are not quite perfect yet. Still, there are several theories, concepts, and practices which stand out to me as critical in regard to your leadership soup and these concepts can help make your soup taste a little better. Those are: Self-Awareness, Listening, Negotiation, Persuasion, and Politicking. While these will likely not be the entire recipe for you, they are still pretty important ingredients. Of course, even in that, things are not always as they seem.

The term “Self-Awareness” is rather misleading. In leadership studies, self-awareness is more than having a clear perception of your personality; it is also about knowing how your weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and emotions are impacting your position. What I am referring to here is the ability to read how people are reacting to you. It’s having an awareness of how you are affecting the people around you. It is the important skill of empathy; the ability to properly and accurately understand and interpret the feelings of another and then act accordingly.

It sounds difficult because it usually is. However, this is extremely important for leaders because of how fast certain behaviors can undermine our own efforts. For example, autocratic behaviors such as bullying or being controlling are uninspiring, being passive-aggressive often makes enemies and being defensive provides the perception of weakness.

A strong understanding of self is half the battle. The other half is the willingness to work on our weaknesses to become better leaders. This is why great leadership development programs encourage the use of solid leadership styles, projecting strong leadership traits, and the practice of listening. 

Of course, there are some that would not list “listening” as a foundational concept, theory or practice. However, listening is arguably one of the most important tools in a leader’s toolbox. It is more than simply making an effort to hear something. Instead; it is the ability and willingness to hear what is being communicated while also accurately receiving and interpreting the messages being delivered.

Let’s say that a CEO wanted to course correct. The leaders in the various positions of your organization would need to be able to effectively and accurately receive and interpret what the new course was if they ever hoped to effectively relay that message to their subordinates or stakeholders. The same can be said in regard to almost any form of communication. It equates to accurate and timely information and leaders need accurate and timely information if they hope to be successful and victorious. The only way this is possible is if the leader can really listen.

Negotiation is another important concept in regard to this outcome. Negotiation is essentially about trade. It is about figuring out the wants and desires of the parties involved and exploring the needs and constraints that could keep either side from moving forward. In many ways, it is a tool of conflict resolution (either before or after conflict arises) where discovering another party’s interests or fears creates a better understanding on both sides so that opportunities for trade become apparent and possible.

Being able to articulate any aspect of the preceding is vital when it comes to effective communication and resolution. Doing so with confidence demonstrates leadership but may also demonstrate knowledge. However, effective negotiation does not usually come without a decent amount of persuasion.

Persuasion is an art that must be learned and practiced. It is the art of explaining, influencing, selling, or convincing. If negotiation fails, leaders must have the ability to then produce a belief or an action with their words alone. This is because leaders will undoubtedly find themselves in a position where they must convince another to act upon a request where trade may not be an option. This can sometimes be the result of debate, but ultimately that leader must be able to provide a sound reason for such actions to take place and do so in a way that connects with the recipient. Effective persuasion is a powerful tool and can even come in handy when dealing with the political aspirations that accompany the many different elements of power or money.  

Politics are common in almost any organization but it doesn’t have to be a “bad” thing. This basically covers the debate or conflict among individuals or groups who have a certain level of power or simply hope to achieve it. This can take many forms. For example, it could be as simple as the graphics department dictating how or when the manufacturing department can complete their given tasks or how a manager navigates while seeking a big promotion.

It is essential for a leader to try and discern the position or motive of the person or groups involved as well as attempt to ascertain any potential goals the group or individual may have. This is because understanding such positions can help a leader and/or organization achieve their ultimate goal while at the same time, potentially help a subordinate achieve theirs. This may be the win/win a leader needs. In other words, politics can be used as an effective tool.

Politics usually has a negative connotation. I think this is unfortunate because as you can see, politics can sometimes be a good thing if used for good. Just know that the proper identification of obstacles or resistance ahead of time can often help mitigate any potential fallout or negative result.

Again, the preceding theories and concepts will not be everything in your leadership soup. They are important elements though. I believe that if you can provide focus to these, some of the other pieces will likely fall into place. Just remember that a trained leader is a better leader. My recommendation would be to find someone knowledgeable in leadership and allow them to help you figure out the rest of your recipe.