Become a Better Leader in 10 Steps

Become a Better Leader in 10 Steps

It's no secret that being a leader can be a challenge. While it comes naturally to some people, others advance to positions in their career that require leadership, and they lack some of the core skills necessary to lead people effectively.

This is what is meant by the phrase, “management is learned, leadership is earned." Just because someone is in a management position doesn't necessarily mean he or she is viewed as a leader. Only the people who they are intended to lead can make that call. Conversely, there are plenty of individuals who are not in management positions but are exceptional leaders.

Here’s an example of the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager (or supervisor) may rise to that position because he or she is the best at their job and all its processes. They set the example of “the way things should be done” so others follow suit – building a bulkhead, laying the key of a vessel, unloading a ship or stacking containers.

What if that manager/supervisor lacks poor leadership skills? They may be able to demonstrate the correct procedures, but if they can’t motivate others to build that bulkhead or unload that vessel, there’s a problem. Are they able to motivate employees to be excited about coming to work, or about feeling accomplished that the end of the day? This is why having good leaders is so important – ensuring that employees are motivated, engaged, and positive reduces turnover and increases productivity. From a safety perspective, it also helps to reduce accidents and related costs.

Fortunately, leadership skills can be learned and easily applied with some practice. This article outlines some simple concepts that hopefully will make leadership seem less daunting and can be incorporated into your behavior as a leader right away.


1. Listen more than you speak.
One of the most fundamental ways to be a better leader is to practice good listening skills. Have you ever been engaged in a conversation with someone and while they are talking, you find yourself drawing conclusions or thinking about how you're going to respond before they even finish talking? When you do that, you are listening to answer instead of listening to understand. It can be incredibly frustrating for someone who looks to you for guidance or support because they may not feel like their concerns or opinions are ever actually heard.

When I first became a supervisor at a shipyard earlier in my career, I had an employee approach me to tell me he wanted to talk about his safety glasses. My first response was, "There's nothing to talk discuss. You need to wear your safety glasses at all times. Now go back to work."

He approached me two more times to talk about his safety glasses and each time I responded in the same authoritative, dismissive manner. Soon after that, he turned in his resignation. I couldn't understand why and assured him that he was doing a fantastic job.

“I can’t work with somebody who won’t listen to me,” he explained. “Three times I came to talk to you about my safety glasses. It’s not that I don’t want to wear them; the ones I have are very uncomfortable. All I wanted to know is where I can get a different pair that I enjoy wearing.”

Unfortunately, there was nothing I could say or do – the relationship was already ruined, and he quit. That was a defining moment for me as a supervisor and manager. I never listened to what he had to say – just jumped to conclusions and lost a great employee because of it.

Sometimes, when people are placed in leadership positions, it is because they have considerable experience. Just because you have more years of experience doesn't mean that you should be dismissive of the ideas or concerns of others. Often, new employees can give different perspectives or approaches which could make processes more efficient or safe. By listening to employees and showing that you are receptive, they will view you as a stronger, more trustworthy leader.

2. Sell your ideas through meaningful examples instead of demanding compliance.
Learning how to convey a message or directive through the art of storytelling will help you become a better leader as well. For example, in the previous section, I told you a personal account of a time when I exhibited poor leadership. You could probably envision the employee coming to talk to me and me ignoring him. Being able to picture that scene in your head helped you to internalize what could happen if you don't pay attention to your employees. Storytelling captivates audiences, and if you can tell a story that someone can relate to, they will listen and want to follow you.

If you’re facing a situation with an employee where you need to give them direction, think about a time when you first started out and someone had to teach you. Instead of just telling them what to do (or what not to do) without listening to them, think about how you could give them an example of when you were in a similar situation. If they understand that you can relate to what they are dealing with or learning, they are more likely to embrace your recommendations and trust that you are just trying to help make them better.

3. Practice and encourage team-playing.
No matter the size of your organization, you interact with coworkers every day. Letting others shine and encouraging innovation helps you to become a more likable leader. More importantly, as a leader, don't just give an idea to your employees and colleagues and tell them what you want. Give the idea and ask them to consider how it can be accomplished. How can everyone work together? How can they help support the goal or the project as a team? Get input from all levels of the organization. If everyone buys into the concept and goal that the team is collectively trying to achieve, and you can facilitate that as a leader, people will want to follow you. Team playing is the key to achieving any goal.

4. Be authentic and transparent in your interactions.
Vulnerability and humility are the hallmarks of an authentic leader. Effective leaders are who they say they are. Your employees and colleagues want you to be authentic in your interactions and lead by example. Not long ago, we were able to separate our "public" selves and our "private" selves. That is now more difficult with the influx of social media and an often-blurred line between work and home life. The trend we see with emerging leaders is that they are transparent about who they are all the time and merge their personal and professional lives together (without compromising a reasonable level of privacy and professionalism). When others see that you are consistent in all aspects of your life, they will trust you more and want to follow you more consistently as well.

Closely tied to being authentic is being transparent. Leaders who attempt to keep secrets will eventually be exposed. Your openness and honesty will lead to happier employees and colleagues because they will never question where you stand on matters (or with them). More importantly, the more transparent you are in your interactions, the less you have to worry about what you said to who, who you didn’t say the right thing to, or who you talked about to someone else. This peace of mind alone will help you be a better leader. Those who work with you will respect you because they will not worry about you taking a different position depending on who you are talking to.

5. Be adaptable to change.
There's never been a faster-changing workplace than the one we experience today. Leaders must be flexible as they manage opportunities and challenges, and be prepared to pivot at the right moment when an issue arises. Most organizations seek leaders who exhibit humility and willingness to adapt, not stubbornness to change. The quality of adaptability is closely tied to being a good listener. If you are willing to adjust your approach based on the input of your employees and colleagues, you create an environment where collaboration is celebrated and people feel comfortable chiming in on how to make things better. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want to work in an environment like that – and it is strong leaders who make that possible.

6. Be responsive and considerate.
When an employee calls you on the phone, talks to you in the field, or sends an email, be responsive to them. Understandably, there are times when you may not have time to be immediately responsive. In those instances, say, "I am tied up now, but I promise to follow up with you tomorrow. Is that okay?" In most cases, it will be.

If you tend to forget to respond to people, figure out a way to remind yourself, such as writing yourself a note, sending yourself an email, or even putting it on your calendar. This one is non-negotiable; when your employees reach out to you, you must follow up with them. If you don’t and choose to ignore them, they will not follow you. They will not be part of your team. That can create a problem if they try to go to some other person who doesn’t have the same goals and objectives in mind.

7. Show passion for your work.
Have you ever heard the saying, "Those who love what they do never have to work a day in their life"? One example that comes to my mind is Peyton Manning, considered to be one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. I was so inspired by the farewell speech he gave when he retired that I did some research on his career and was equally inspired by his passion for the game. He has notebooks for every game he has played since high school which enabled him to go back and study every team he played, each player he faced, every coach he encountered, every defensive line and every offensive line. He was incredibly passionate about his work, and that passion was contagious among his teammates and every fan who cheered them on.

If you're passionate about what you do, people want to be part of that. Always remember that people want to be part of success, not part of a tragedy. If you're a passionate leader, it breeds success which attracts equally passionate employees. If you don’t love what you do, chances are you're not in the right profession. Find what you're passionate about. Follow that dream and pursue it.

8. Acknowledge others with simple, positive gestures.
Recognizing employees does not have to take a ton of thought or effort. Sure, people appreciate the occasional raise or bonus or being recognized with a prestigious award. But sometimes the more simple gestures will get you farther as a leader.

How many times have you caught yourself walking through your office or facility with your head down, thinking about your next meeting, thinking about all the things you need to do, and you don't even acknowledge your co-workers? Here are some ideas for quick and positive interactions with employees and colleagues:

  • When you see someone first thing in the morning, smile and say, "Good morning!"
  • If you’re in a hurry, acknowledge someone by shaking their hand and telling them that it was nice to see them.
  • After you’ve given someone constructive feedback, acknowledge when they follow your direction/guidance by giving them a simple thumbs up; not every positive interaction has to be a conversation.

If you don't take the time to acknowledge people or appear friendly, they won't want to be part of your team. A smile, thumbs up or handshake are all easy techniques that carry much weight as you seek to become a better leader.

9. Keep things simple.
When developing rules and policies, or implementing new ideas, it's essential to present them to your employees as simply as possible. It allows each employee to better understand and buy into your vision. It's human nature to seek to understand, but sometimes it's hard to do so when we can't grasp all the components of something. As a leader, focus on delivering simple messages to gain the most buy-in from your team.

10. Practice humility and gratitude.
Leaders are likable when they express appreciation for others. Additionally, being appreciative of mentors, colleagues and employees also keeps you humble. It also opens your eyes to positive behaviors in the workplace that are reinforced through your acknowledgment of them.

Often when working together in teams, you will hear some leaders say, “I did this. I did that.” This goes against the adage, "There's no ‘I' in team." Gracious leaders allow everyone else to shine, giving credit to their employees and colleagues. When that happens, others all appreciate you as a leader and are more willing to follow you.

11. Bonus Step! Above all else, follow the golden rule (or slightly a modified version).
We’ve all heard the golden rule, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” While this is still generally a good rule to follow, I’ve come to realize over time that not everybody wants to be treated the same way that I want to be treated. Everyone has their own distinct personality, motivations, and way of doing things.

Some people need step-by-step instructions; others require minimal direction. As a leader, you have to recognize these differences and accept people as they are. You cannot become frustrated with employees just because they need more explanation or more time to complete a task, as long as they are ultimately doing it the right way. These workers will often become some of your best employees and will go to the end of the world for you if you are willing to treat them the way they want to be treated.

As a leader, you cannot expect people to follow if you don't know how to lead. Great leaders are always self-reflecting on ways to improve. Consider these 10 simple concepts and honestly evaluate yourself to identify areas of opportunity for improvement and make a conscious effort to improve. It's worth noting that these things will not only make you a better leader but a more likable person overall – a result that transcends the workplace into our personal lives as well.

Remember, a person can't lead if they have no followers. Earn the respect of those around you, and you will be viewed as the leader you are.


Woody Collins joined The American Equity Underwriters, Inc. in 2011 with 26 years of experience in the maritime industry. He is an AEU LEAD® Manager helping members transform operational goals into actionable plans through a structured change management process. Woody’s experience prior to joining AEU includes managing projects for a large repair shipyard, co-owning a marine labor provider company and a small tow boat company, and managing the auditing process for the implementation of safety management system and training facility safety coordinators at a major new construction and repair shipyard.

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