How to Develop Your Leadership Skills (And 3 Ways Not To)

A woman leads a team project

Everyone has to start somewhere. Good leadership is perhaps the rarest and most valuable commodity on Earth. Early on in my career, I made a common mistake of thinking management was leadership. And was surprised to learn when I inquired about taking some management courses, many people in my organization already considered me a leader. I had developed leadership skills without even realizing it!

Leadership skills are developed through much self-reflection, honesty, discipline, emotional intelligence, sacrifice, and integrity. Leadership skills are paid for with a difficult and heavy price. The people who have the fortitude to walk through such trials are often richly rewarded with the respect and admiration of their peers, subordinates, and bosses.

As Maya Angelou said in one of her many profound quotes, “the price is high, the reward is great.”

Learn the Art of Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is taking an inventory of how you handled a certain situation, crisis, or achievement. Was I unprofessional when I stood my ground in that meeting? Did my being friendly with co-workers stray too far into office gossip? Did I really put my best effort in that quarterly report? Did I blame others for missing key metrics, when I knowingly could have done better?

Self-reflection begins with being brutally honest with yourself. Do not tell yourself lies to make your ego feel better. Excuses are great for your ego, accepting responsibility is great for your career. Retired Navy Seal and ultra-marathon runner David Goggins refers to this concept as an accountability mirror. Have the courage to face the real you staring back at you in that mirror, and be honest about what that person needs to improve on.

“Excuses are great for your ego, accepting responsibility is great for your career.”


Self-reflection, like a lot of skills, do not come natural and most be practiced. At first, it will feel awkward and unwelcome. You will feel under attack by your own self, and in a way you are. Your ego fights tooth and nail to feel good, it does not matter if the stories you tell yourself are true. But the only pathway to true greatness begins with being honest, brutally honest, with that person looking at you in the mirror.

Commit to Honesty in All Things

After you have mastered being honest with yourself, commit to be honest to those around you. If you screwed up, say you screwed up. If you have to give someone unfortunate news, don’t sugarcoat it. If a supervisor asks a question, and you know they are not going to like the answer, be courageous and give them the honest answer.

In his book “Extreme Ownership,” author and retired Navy Seal, Jocko Willink describes a tragic incident which occurred while he was in command of several units during Operation Iraqi Freedom in Ramadi, Iraq in 2007. Through a series of mistakes, bad luck, and miscommunication, two allied units under Willink’s command got into a lethal skirmish with each other leading to one death and numerous injured.

Willink describes the aftermath of the incident when he pored through the dozens of mistakes which were made trying to figure out who was at fault. All at once, he made the decision to accept full responsibility to his superiors. In a debrief meeting, he told his superiors he was at fault because he was the one in charge. Everything which happened on the battlefield was his responsibility, and ultimately the tragedy occurred on his watch.

This remarkable display of honesty and willingness to accept responsibility immediately fostered trust between Willink and his superiors, and Willink and his subordinates.

Be Disciplined

While we are on the subject of Jocko Willink, he also has a book called “Discipline Equals Freedom.” Willink accurately describes a remarkable truth about life. That we must all choose between between the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.

Discipline is the art of doing what you know you need to do, even if you don’t feel like it. Discipline is not natural. It’s a skill that must be learned, practiced, and repeated over and over again. Good leaders must be disciplined. They must direct their energy on projects even if they do not want to. They must have difficult conversations, and they must work when ominous deadlines loom. This is not an easy skill to master, but it’s essential to be a good leader.

Learn Emotional Intelligence

The National Institute of Health shattered a long-held belief that Intelligence (IQ) was the greatest predictor of academic and/or professional success. Their ground breaking research in 2006 discovered a startling truth; emotional intelligence (EI) is a far greater predictor of success both academically and professionally than IQ.

So what, then, is emotional intelligence? It is defined by Oxford Dictionary as, “The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously, and empathetically.” Emotional intelligence means having the ability to understand people often suffer in quiet and that can be reflected in their work or how they interact with you. It’s the ability to keep your emotional impulses and reactions in check, in lieu of a more rational and calm path.

“e·mo·tion·al in·tel·li·gence
the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

-Oxford Dictionary-

Be Prepared to Make Sacrifices

When you learn self-reflection, emotional intelligence, and self-discipline, you will be putting yourself into position to make sacrifices.

What do I mean by that? Well consider the three things we have put into practice. Self-reflection is identifying problems with yourself. Emotional intelligence is having the understanding of what led you to behave or act in such a way. And self-discipline is having the fortitude to fix it.

Hence, sacrifices. They are inevitable. Once you have identified a problem, understand how it happened, and you have the discipline to change course, making sacrifices is inevitable. You will likely have to give up gossip, alcohol, an over-indulgence in sweets or caffeine, pornography or any number of other traps which keep you shackled to mediocrity.

Author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy says, “most people’s career potential is capped at their weakest skill. A bizarre truth is that 90% of people could double their income by improving their weakest skill.”

And here we are. Make the sacrifices. Do the hard thing to attack that weakest skill. Even if it means sacrificing 30 minutes of sleep to work out, or leaving home a few extra minutes early to beat traffic. Leadership is self-improvement. And self-improvement is making temporary sacrifices in exchange for future rewards.

Value Your Integrity

Do what you say you are going to do, and practice what you preach. Humans, even tiny ones, have remarkable “hypocrisy” radars. Try out this experiment for yourself. Tell a 3-year-old they cannot have brownies because it’s bad for them, and then eat one in front of them to see what happens. Even a 3-year-old can recognize hypocrisy and call you out on your bs.

You absolutely, unequivocally cannot be a good leader without integrity. Behaving in a manner incongruent with the vision, morals, and ideals you espouse to others will burn any respect you have to the ground.

An important caveat. Yes, some powerful leaders are liars, manipulators, and frauds and still are able to garner support for their cause. Deep down, the followers know the leader is a hypocrite but do not care. As long as that hypocrite delivers on their promise to empower the followers, they’re more than happy to look the other way, and even make excuses for any behavior considered untoward.

I would be remiss not to address the elephant in the room about how awful people can lead large groups of people. That phenomenon is owed a brief explanation, but let’s not get distracted with that. This is about you becoming the best person and leader you can, and integrity is a cornerstone of that puzzle.

Do Not Leverage Authority; Leverage Respect

We have discussed some skills needed to become a good leader. But, as promised let’s discuss three important things not to do. A big one is to remember what got you here. A series of sacrifices, tremendous strides in character, and a marathon of self-improvement got you into a leadership role. But never mistake your position with the power of leadership. If you have a position of authority in your organization, your rank is a tool you can use to get results. But it comes at a tremendous cost.

Ordering subordinates to do things without connecting the tasks to the greater mission is easy and it does get results. But it can sow discontent and resentment, especially when people who want to understand the purpose of orders and directives are not permitted to do so. Remember, people will follow authority, begrudgingly, because they have to. But they will follow good leadership, enthusiastically, because they want to.

“People will follow authority, begrudgingly, because they have to. But they will follow good leadership enthusiastically because they want to.”

-Your humble correspondent-

Do Not Mistake Appearance for Substance

Former Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs used to wear iconic, black turtlenecks. Although his outfit became its own brand, Jobs had a remarkably simple purpose for the black turtleneck look. It was his philosophy that his mind and its energy was valuable and needed to be devoted on innovating amazing things and solving problems for the 21st century. It was his belief that any of this brainpower spent on tasks other than that, including picking out clothing, was a waste. Therefore he had his closet lined with the same outfit each day, so he could think while dressing on mental auto-pilot.

After Jobs’ iconic fashion look became entrenched in popular culture, there were many imitators. People who wanted to look like Jobs in order to conjure the image of a powerful and brilliant innovator took up the black turtleneck, without actually understanding the deeper purpose behind it.

Good leaders will devote their energy to things which actually bring success. Frauds will devote their energy into the things which give the appearance of success.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the Theranos corporation, is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for defrauding investors of billions of dollars. In addition to fabricating research results to bilk billions, she also went full steam ahead on projecting the image of a brilliant pioneer by often donning the iconic black turtleneck iconic of Steve Jobs.

Devote your energy into being successful, not looking successful.

Do Not Ever Think ‘I Have Made It’

The day you tell yourself that you’ve made it, is the day you begin to lose. Good leadership is not a destination, it’s a journey. It’s the journey that teaches us, forges us, and molds us into great people. The moment you lose sight of that is the day you begin regressing.

It’s been said that in the 21st century our skills have a half-life of about 2 years. This means if we are not constantly learning, constantly striving, and constantly moving forward… we are in fact falling behind.

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

Recent Posts