Leading a team, company, or organization sounds impressive. But if you’ve been a leader for longer than a week, you’ve probably also realized it’s a lot of pressure and requires more of you than you thought it would.

If you want to inspire loyalty and trust in your team (so that they’ll actually take your direction), you need them to say in their heads, “I would follow him/her anywhere.”

In order to get that kind of buy-in from your team, you need to work on the core pillars that make a truly successful leader. Whether you’re a natural leader or you’ve been intentionally working on it for years, these are the traits that will continue to serve you if you consistently commit to honing them.

Emotional Intelligence With A Strategic Mind

Natural leaders are the exception, not the norm. In an organic setting, when a group of people are willing to follow one person in particular, it’s because they view that person as someone who fully understands the problem the collective is facing, the leader has a vision of the future the collective can rally behind, and they feel the leader is dedicated to resolving that problem for them. 

However, in companies and corporations, there are many leadership roles where the team will often be forced to follow a leader. That’s why it’s vital to understand natural leadership progression and maintenance so your team is willing to accept and proclaim you as their leader, even if they didn’t choose you to begin with. Otherwise, that same collective can come together for the removal of the leader, which isn’t a pretty situation (let’s avoid that!).

Natural leadership begins with a balance of emotional intelligence and strategic thinking. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to be the team’s leader. What you do need to have is an open mind that is able to see the path differently, the ability to understand the language of the people within your team (who may be more intelligent than you), and the emotional awareness to identify what types of motivation will help your people efficiently get to the finish line. 

In governments throughout world history, the strongest leaders have surrounded themselves with excellent advisors to help them think through problems strategically and creatively, while maintaining awareness around the potential outcomes of each scenario and how those outcomes would affect their people. It’s up to the leader to make the right decision for the people. In a company or business, the process is no different. 

Your team is there to advise on the situation, to help resolve problems in the business, and to implement plans to reach company goals. It’s your job as the leader to sort through the information they’re giving you and devise the best plan of action, then give that action plan to your people, and support them through their implementation period. By showing up as a problem solver and facilitator, you inspire trust in the team so you can keep them rowing in the same direction, even when things get challenging.

This process allows team members to feel heard, and gives them the opportunity to resolve interpersonal problems within their ranks before issues become too large to handle. The leader creates the safe space for communication, resolution, innovation, and creative problem solving to occur. The team operates within the emotional, strategic, and intellectual container set by the leader.

Integrity, Vulnerability, & Resilience

The expectations you have of your team are the same standards you hold yourself to as the leader. Integrity, for example, isn’t simply about keeping your word or telling the truth. Integrity is about holding yourself to the same standard (or higher) that you hold others to. So if you’re expecting your team members to meet their deadlines, you must keep your agreements also. 

This is not to say there’s no room for being human, but there needs to be standards of integrity you have in place as a leader. One example of integrity standards might be something like, in order to avoid employee burnout, we’re going to build an extra two weeks into the plan for the team to deliver the project to the client. This means the standard is you do diligent work and make the deadlines, without requiring harm to yourself or others in the process. 

Likewise, in order to make your integrity and standards relatable, it’s important to exhibit a mix of vulnerability and resilience with your team. When you think of vulnerability, this doesn’t necessarily mean weeping in front of your team. Vulnerability is about letting your team into your thinking and emotional processes. For example, if your team is under pressure and the stress is getting you (and them!), it might make sense to have a quick team meeting and say something along the lines of, “I know things are stressful right now. I’m feeling it too. But we’re a team, and we’re going to figure this out together. Here are some of my ideas, what are yours?”

By not trying to be superhuman and actually showing your people that you too have real emotions, you create an opening for your team to share what they’re going through. Having an open dialogue with your people continues to build trust, while also helping you get them refocused on productivity because issues struggle to fester and become worse when you create an environment for your team members to work through their thoughts, feelings, and challenges.

With all of these components, resilience is one of the most important traits a leader can have. When your team fails, you fail. There will be times when your team lets you down, when bad things happen that you don’t see coming, and when you don’t know how to fix a problem. It’s these times more than ever that your team looks to you for guidance, strength, and vision. No one expects you to solve everything by yourself. They’re looking to you for the resilience to carry through. And that is the power your team will follow, even through the most treacherous of storms.

Clear Boundaries

This is one of the biggest differentiating factors between successful leaders and everyone else. Clear, strong boundaries are what hold the container for your team. If a team member feels like they can cross one of your boundaries, you can see hierarchies form in your team (that you don’t want!). You set the expectations of everyone’s behavior and interactions through your own. For example, if your company has been dealing with bullying or harassment issues, it’s probably not a good idea to tease one of your team members in the name of good fun. 

It’s important to have conversations with your team about your boundaries and the standards you have for them as a group, as well as back those conversations up with consistent reinforcing behavior. Think about boundaries like the rules to a board game. When everyone knows and respects the rules, the game is fun, lively, and brings the players together. But when someone tries to break a rule, it can turn into a hot-headed mess of arguments. So long as everyone knows the rules to succeeding as a team and they respect those boundaries, you have the makings of a strong team.

As a leader, it’s your job to not only set the container of those rules, expectations, and boundaries, but also to hold them firm. Each member of your team will require you to handle them differently in confrontational situations. Some will need privacy and understanding, while some may need to be called out instantly to end the behavior. By getting to know your people, understand their motivations, and learn how they best respond in a confrontational situation, you learn how to better direct your team as a whole and hold the boundaries in place across the board.

Here are some strategies for learning more about your team members: 

  • Have your team members take some personality or behavioral assessments. Instead of relying on just one, have them take two to three so you have a fuller picture of how each team member best works.

  • Another evaluation you can have team members take is The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Paul White. This will tell you how each team member likes to be rewarded and praised when they do a good job, which builds strength and loyalty into your relationship.

  • Create a regular meeting time where team members can get together and talk about what they’d like to see happen as a collective. By getting team members to open up regularly about how they’re feeling and how they’d like to grow together, you tear down a lot of the invisible barriers that keep your team from working together efficiently.