What really makes a good leader? Many theories and models try to show us the way. The discussion may be approached from several perspectives. For example, what are the characteristics (or personality traits) of effective leaders, what do effective leaders do or what are process models in which the nature of the work is connected with the type of leadership that is effective? We’re not going to deal with all the approaches in this post – that would require a book in itself! We’re going to focus on one of the common factors: the leader’s social skills. Why? Because attractive leaders are also much more effective leaders. Specifically we will look at one element of these social skills, one which especially makes leaders attractive, both to the people who work for them as well as to others, either higher up in the organization or outside: their ability to always add something to any interaction in which they engage.
When it comes to characteristics of a good leader, being sociable, friendly, outgoing, and assertive are definitely positive ones. And to a large degree these correlate with one’s self-reflective abilities and one’s self-esteem, meaning the good leader has a well-developed self-esteem.
It’s all about your ability to ask the right questions
As to what effective leaders do, I concur with Edgar Schein’s idea that it’s all about relationship. And that isn’t really such a strange idea. In Belgium, for example, it isn’t uncommon for prospective business partners to first meet socially and establish a relationship with one another. Only once sufficient trust has been developed will the subject of business even be broached. The message is clear: first we need to trust one another (relationship), then business has the best chance of succeeding. That same principle applies to leadership: when those being lead trust their leader, they will go that extra mile. Whether you’re a leader trying to market your product or service or that same leader wanting to effectively lead your team, having good relationships with others is crucial.
In his book Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein (2013) makes the argument that a good relationship is based on your inquisitiveness and your ability to ask the right questions, rather than how much information you give the other. So the first point may be clear: rather than telling team members what they’re supposed to be doing, get curious, start asking questions, start getting to know what makes your team members tick and above all, become genuinely interested in them as people. And to be able to do that, you’re going to need to be able to be self-reflective. You’re going to have to know who you are, where you’re coming from and how you view yourself. This is where self-esteem comes into the picture.
What does self-esteem have to do with supporting good relationships? There seems to be a direct correlation between your self-image (the ideas and beliefs you hold about who and what you are), self-esteem (how valuable you deem yourself to be) and the way you generally communicate. It seems logical: if your ideas about yourself aren’t that positive, the likelihood is that you don’t think you’re worth that much either. Also, your belief in what you are capable of (so-called “self-efficacy”) will affect your idea of who you are and how valuable you see yourself as being.
Let’s talk about the people you will have to deal with. They, like you, will have a perception not only about their self-image, but also about their ideal self-image. And when their perceived self-image doesn’t match their ideal, this lowers their self-esteem. They will then behave in ways to enhance their current status. When you as a leader know about the typical ways people behave to enhance or maintain their self-esteem, you have the key to being able to interact with them optimally. Some ideas adapted from Joshua Pellicer may give you some ideas on how to do this.
The perceived difference between actual and ideal self-image
The basic idea is that if your perceived self-image matches your ideal self-image, you will feel self-confident and happy, and the behavior of others won’t knock you off-kilter that easily. These are generally the socially attractive people: They have good social skills and are able to make people around them feel comfortable in their presence. You could say they are givers rather than takers. Their behavior also has a kind of built-in self-fulfilling prophecy: the more these people give (in terms of making others feel good in their company), the more others appreciate them and the better they feel about themselves. What they are giving isn’t material – when you feel good in someone’s company you also tend to feel happier about yourself, increasing your own self-esteem. In other words, such a person increases others’ feelings of self-esteem too. This then is the kind of self-esteem you want if you want to be a desirable leader: You are then able to deal in a constructive way – and by extension add to the interaction – with all kinds of people irrespective of their level of self-esteem.
How does the effective leader deal with various levels of self-esteem? We need to take a step back and again look at the people you will be interacting with, that is, people in general.
On a scale from 0 to 5 there is a range of varying levels of self-esteem (which may also fluctuate from day to day), which, for ease of use, may be categorized from a zero (victim) to a five (fully self-confident). This leads to six vignettes, each depicting certain typical communication traits of your possible conversational partners and tips on how best to deal with each of these categories. The basic rule to effectively deal with each category is to add value to the interaction for the other person. To start, how best to deal with the highest (level 5) self-esteem individuals: if they truly have such high self-esteem, they will be very easy to get along with. In fact, there is little you need to do except reciprocate the respect they give you.
No self-esteem makes an individual feel helpless and powerless
On the lower end of the scale you have those whose self-esteem is way down. They feel themselves to be a play-ball in the hands of a mighty and uncharitable world over which they have no influence. The only way they know to get attention is to display their victim status and hope others will feel sorry for them. Unfortunately, this often maintains itself: as they expect not to be able to influence the environment around them, they don’t even bother to try, whereby they don’t influence their circumstances, keeping the status quo. The pitfall is to fall for their helplessness and do everything for them – this way you do neither them nor yourself any good; you only create dependency. The second pitfall is to enter into a discussion on whatever their negative attitude is directed at. The best way to deal with this dynamic is the odd Socratic question, in which you hint that they may be a little less helpless than they seem, or by naively asking what they could do (even something small) to alleviate their own situation.
Defuse the obligation issue
Then you have those with just a modicum of self-esteem (level 1). These are people who typically cost you a lot of energy: they feel they have little to give and therefore actively ask for (a lot of) attention. Their self-esteem is dependent on how much attention they can get from others. They also actively try to bind people to them using subtle or less subtle guilt-trips, by making others feel they owe them something. This can be by giving gifts or performing unasked favors. How to deal with this dynamic? Well, by giving them (a little of) what they want: respect and attention. Yet to do this properly you will need to defuse the obligation issue and set realistic boundaries. This usually means politely yet firmly turning down the gifts and favors and offering to give them limited amounts of attention on your own terms; that is, without any obligation on either side.
Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into the battle zone
The next level (2) is those who overcompensate, who actively try to prove they have more self-esteem than they actually have. They do this by downplaying others (if another is less than me, then I am more), leading to a loud, argumentative, combative way of dealing with others. These are the unguided missiles in social interactions and are typically the most difficult to deal with. Understanding their behavior is the key to dealing with them. Their behavior is an act and it’s a direct result of an emotion: a fear of losing that little bit of self-esteem they have or the fear that what they have isn’t really enough. So their behavior is directed at protecting what they have by attacking. The trick is not to be drawn into the battle zone. You give them respect by appreciating their act: you compliment them on their outspokenness and simply ignore the content of the attacks. More than with any other kind of person, you need to understand their behavior as an expression of how they feel, not of what or who they are.
Wearing titles on your sleeve
The middle category (3) represents those who are well on their way to developing their self-esteem, but who typically feel they need to prove themselves in every situation. These are the people who collect and wear their titles on their sleeve. They are competitive towards everyone they perceive as a threat to their self-esteem, which in their eyes means everyone who seems to have achieved more (and by extension are seen as more valuable than themselves). They actively engage in competition with these perceived as threatening individuals by launching a veiled offensive, or by openly verbally attacking these people. As with the previous category, engaging in competition is not the way to go, as it will lead to winners and losers. Remember that how valuable another is should never define your own value. So, the trick here is to value this person, not reducing or downplaying their conquests, by showing them respect and complimenting them on their achievements.
The next to highest category (4) is difficult to distinguish from the top group in that, although they realize that their self-esteem does not depend on others, they still sometimes fall into feeling insecure when others in some way reject them. This can mean falling back, but usually these kinds of people are good at hiding what others do to them and are soon able to regain their poise. Dealing with them is similar to dealing with the top group: Reciprocate. Add to that some support and these people will only feel better about themselves than they already do.
What about the narcissist?
The narcissist is someone who believes they are special and should therefore receive special treatment. This belief is however not realistic and even when such a person does possess highly developed talents, using them as a way to elicit respect from others is actually the same strategy as the competitive number 3 vignette. This is why narcissists believe they have a high self-esteem, yet do not act like people who genuinely have a high self-esteem. So a narcissist isn’t a number 5, but at highest a number 3.
The leader’s ideal self-esteem
The question then is: What level of self-esteem should the leader have? Ideally a five, yet a four is probably a good compromise. Besides, considering yourself a four means you constantly see room for improvement, which is better than thinking you have nothing left to learn (which will come across as arrogance). What then is the essence of the number 5 for a good leader? When you fit this category, you are someone who always adds to the interaction, with everyone: from people with a zero right up to people with a five. In other words, you understand the dynamics presented above and use this knowledge to add value to every interaction you engage in.
How to develop that ideal self-esteem
If you know that your self-esteem is lower than a five, you can actively engage strategies to increase it. The best way to do this is using Bem’s self-perception theory (Bem, 1972) to your advantage: By behaving like a five, you will start believing that you are actually that. This is because you also observe your own behavior and implicitly draw conclusions about yourself based on these observations. The second reason this strategy works is that thanks to practice, you get better at it! And, by behaving as a five you also elicit generally positive reactions from your team members, colleagues and the environment at large, putting the self-fulfilling prophecy into action for your own good.
It may seem that these strategies are ways to manipulate people, and that also is a trap. This is why it is so important that leaders realize that their own self-esteem is not dependent on others, nor on the way others approach them. Your reasons for approaching people in a certain way are actually empathic: By realizing how much self-esteem another thinks they have, and dealing with that in a sensitive way, you not only help them develop themselves, you also increase their willingness to collaborate with you.
It’s about adding value
In summary then, one of the most potent social skills a leader can develop is a genuine high level of self-esteem. This will enable them to always add value in any social interaction, making them more attractive to collaborate with. It’s about not hiding or ignoring your insecurities, but actively seeking ways to be more valuable yourself. Dealing with and overcoming your insecurities is in itself a value-added activity. Partly you can do that by becoming an excellent communicator, as then you will be making other people feel better about themselves, thereby setting the self-fulfilling prophecy into motion. The other part is realizing you are always at the peak of your development, which means that tomorrow you will be better (even if only incrementally) than today.