Skip to Content

What makes a good leader at work?

Kaitlin Madden, CareerBuilder writer

  • Email

Vince Lombardi once said "Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile." While this quote is certainly inspiring, it also inspires a pretty heavy sense of responsibility. Essentially, what Lombardi is telling us from beyond the grave is that we each have the potential to be a great leader, but whether we foster or suppress that potential is solely up to us.

So how can you make Coach Lombardi proud? According to experts, regardless of whether you're a top executive or you manage a couple of interns, if you want to effectively hold a leadership position, there are certain steps you should take and skills you should develop in order to get there.

"Leadership isn't simply about standing on a mountain and screaming, 'Follow me!'" says Sam Bacharach, a professor at Cornell's International Labor Relations School. "It is about the nuts and bolts of execution. Leadership is an everyday activity. In that sense, leadership is about your political capacity to mobilize people and your managerial capacity to engage them and sustain momentum. Leadership is something that can be learned. It is a question of acquiring specific skills."

If you want to be a good leader at work, these are the skills and abilities to cultivate:

Relationship building

Relationship building is the most fundamental element of leadership. Establishing strong relationships with people enables them to trust and respect you, in turn giving them a reason to follow your lead.

"In the area of relationships, establishing rapport, promoting acceptance of differences, building trust and empowering others are key skills to develop," says Adam Bandelli, principle of RHR International, an executive leadership coaching firm.

While each of these components is a key to strong relationships, the most indispensable -- but also the most challenging -- is establishing trust, Bandelli says. "[The ability to build] trust is the most important skill in the relationship domain, but takes the longest to do because the development of trust between leader and direct report takes time," he says. "[But] the leaders that develop trust the quickest are direct, open to feedback and equally transparent with all of their people."

Goal setting

Leadership attempts will prove futile if you don't have a clear cut idea of where you're leading people. In other words, no one will want to get on board your idea train if they have no clue where it's going. Thus, it's critical to set goals for your team.

"Setting a meaningful vision is critical to the effectiveness of any leader because it sets the stage for strategically aligning the team around a unified purpose, provides each player on the team with a role that ties back to the collective vision and serves as a rallying cry that inspires the team," Bandelli says. "When a meaningful vision is not put in to place by the leader and his [or] her team, the focus of the group can become clouded and ultimately lead to derailment."

If you manage a team of five salespeople, for example, set a quarterly goal to be the top-grossing sales team in the company, and outline the way each person is expected to contribute to the team vision. Not only will this give each member of your team a reason to work hard, but because the goal is collective, it will give them a reason to work together. The following quarter, set a different sales goal or work towards something new, like building up your client base.

Authenticity and follow through

These two go hand-in-hand: By consistently demonstrating each, you'll be able to increase the amount of influence you have in the workplace, since people will learn that they can count on you and thus be more likely to support your ideas.

"Leadership is about influence and impact," says Victoria Ashford, leadership coach and owner of "A great leader can only positively influence and impact others when they know [their leader] isn't going to wimp out or abandon ship when it gets tough."

Adds Bandelli: "In the area of cultivating influence, the most important soft skill is authenticity. A leader who is authentic with his [or] her people generates respect, loyalty and commitment."

So be sure to deliver on whatever responsibility you take on or goal you set. If that sales team of yours is working their butts off trying to outperform the rest of the company while you're sidetracked with other projects and not contributing, they're likely to see you as someone who says things just because they sound good. In the same vein, if you take on a project and run into trouble while carrying it out, set an example by not giving up. Throw in the towel when you come across a challenge and you'll lose credibility.


While leaders are often people who can "do it all," the good ones choose not to.

"First of all, let me say that delegation should never be seen -- or used as -- 'dumping,'" says Ashford. "Delegating is an important leadership quality [because] releasing some power or authority in regard to certain tasks or projects can help others -- whether subordinates or peers -- to develop, face challenges and shine. Delegation is [also] a good time management practice, and assessing and utilizing others' strengths makes everybody better and fosters teamwork."

One of the crucial points to remember about delegation, however, is that it needs to be done thoughtfully, and it may not be something you can start doing right away. "[Delegation] is intimately tied to how a leader builds the capabilities of those around them," Bandelli says. "Delegating responsibilities, assignments, or areas of the business too soon can create havoc and derail a high potential individual. When a leader knows his or her people well, and takes the time to put in place a formalized development plan for each of their direct reports, then it becomes easier to delegate the right assignments to the right people at the right points in time."

Kaitlin Madden is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow @Careerbuilder on Twitter.

Last Updated: 10/01/2011 - 4:33 PM

Article Reprints
Permission must be obtained from to reprint any of its articles. Please send a request to