3 steps to improve your leadership skills and circle of influence

  • leadership skills

One of your goals as a leader should be to inspire and motivate other people, a.k.a. positively influence them! Motivational leadership skills create cohesion, inspire creativity, and generate diligence. 

When you motivate and inspire other people you build a sphere of influence. This term can be found in political science and international relations theory, where countries are able to influence the actions of other countries–allies, neutral states, and enemies alike. In leadership you also develop a sphere of influence. 

For any leader to be successful, they must try and create such motivation and action in the people they are charged to lead. From big, multinational groups to small teams, developing motivational leadership skills is essential. We’ll talk about the three big steps to develop motivational leadership skills and be an influencer. 

  • Identify and brand your leadership style
  • Provide consistent, positive, value-based feedback
  • Marketing your leadership skills to create a culture of accountability

As always, our team of psychologists have combed through hundreds of research papers in psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, management, organizational behavior, behavioral economics, and applied ethics to inform our research-backed tips and to help you develop  motivational leadership skills. We’ll first talk a little about the research behind inspiration and what it takes to be an influencer.


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The science of inspiration

Most people look for inspiration somewhere in the world regardless of their job. Every day, it takes motivation or inspiration to act and live. Research has found that motivation and inspiration increase success in education, athletics, addiction treatment, relationships, business, work performance, and a myriad of other domains. 

Extrinsic rewards (e.g., working hard because you want a promotion) or intrinsic rewards (e.g., work hard because it brings a sense of pride) can both be effective motivators. 

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In the brain, punishments and reward-based learning translates to dopamine production. Dopamine is responsible for the happiness and pleasure we get when we get a reward, and it’s sometimes referred to as the pleasure neurotransmitter.

Because dopamine is so pleasurable and desirable, our bodies constantly crave it. Humans are not alone. All animals have dopamine released when we eat good food, have a satisfying drink, have positive social interactions, and other physiological pleasures (such as sex, stretching, exercise, etc.).

motivation and action

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Motivation orients us towards action. Motivation and inspiration are always tied to how we behave and what we are willing to do. Think of a time when you were extra motivated and inspired. Were you willing to do anything to accomplish your goal? Were you willing to give up other pleasures and niceties to achieve? Did you feel energized? These are common feelings when you are motivated and inspired.

Leadership is no different. When you as a leader are able to inspire and motivate others, you create a more productive and energized environment. We’re going to get into our three big skills for excelling in motivational leadership. If you’re interested in a simple process on effective leadership implementation, don’t forget to visit this article as well.

brand your leadership qualities

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Tip 1: Identifying and branding your leadership style

One of the keys to developing the skills of an influencer is to determine the values you and your team care about, what might also be referred to as your leadership style. Your leadership skills and your sphere of influence will be built around these values. You might think of this as a marketing-type exercise, but instead of developing a product, you are developing your “leadership brand”. 

Often we think of a “brand” as an image or persona we embody for a particular purpose. When we do this, often people accuse us of being phoney or fake; the solution to that is to create your persona around your values. 

When you are explicit about what your values are and how your actions relate to your team, you are able to create a personal and group identity. Creating a group identity is critical to building a cohesive group and generating buy-in from team members towards a common goal. 

Here are two sample activities that you (or your group) can do to help you identify your leadership values. 

  1. Values survey
  2. The leadership bracket championship


Activity 1: Values Survey

This easy activity can be done independently or with a group. 

First, in a vertical column, write down 10 skills or qualities that you think make you a good leader (e.g. confident speaker, hard-working, non-praise seeking, able to take input and constructive criticism, resolve conflict well, etc.)

Take each of these skills and next to them, write down one leader who exemplifies these leadership skills. After that, write down one negative quality or a good leadership quality that each leader lacked.

Then brainstorm or think of a way the leader could address their flaw. Lastly, in a final column, write down if you think you have a similar flaw, or how you might learn from the leader’s flaw. An example is below.

The exercise achieves three major goals. First, it helps you identify leadership skills that you currently possess and share with famous or inspirational leaders. This helps you build a general idea of how you can put your values and skills into action by looking at the examples of other leaders.

Second, it shows you that all leaders are fallible. Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa are widely recognized as great leaders and people who worked for the good of others, but they were PEOPLE; no one is perfect.

Perfectionism has been showing to be a major impediment and determinant for leaders (here’s a detailed framework for battling perfectionism and overcoming self-doubt). Identifying a vice or a lack of leadership area for some of these great leaders is helpful to remind us that when we fail in leadership, it is an opportunity for us to learn and develop.

Lastly, it helps you think through your vices or leadership flaws and how you might address them. 

If you do this in a group, you can have a conversation about similar leaders on your list, or think about how they could fix issues. This can start a conversation about what you value as a group, what you want to work on together, and how you can help one another.


Activity 2: The Leadership bracket championship

This is best as a group activity, but can also be done on your own as needed. As a group, write down 32 (or 8, 16, or 64 depending on how big you want your bracket) names of leaders on slips of paper and put them in a hat. Then create a “team” bracket (like you see for March Madness or the World Cup post-pool play), and randomly assign each leader to a position on the bracket. 

Come up with a criteria for how you will evaluate each match up. Possibilities include: which leader is admired more? Who had the longer lasting influence? Who would succeed in your field? Who has the most valuable skills for your project? 

This can be a time consuming activity, so you can do it as part of a longer meeting, team building exercise time, or even a group retreat. If you want, you can also break this up into multiple 5-10 minute conversations during morning briefings or lunch breaks. Look at each “match-up” and discuss which leader wins or advances based on your team or group’s criterion, until you have a “champion”.

The purpose of this exercise is threefold. First, it allows you as a group to discuss and think about leaders that you admire. Depending on how big you make the bracket, there could be tough decisions about who to include or exclude.

Second, this is an opportunity to discuss the merits and/or shortcomings of each leader and think about them beyond their initial context.

Third, when you’re thinking up criteria and evaluating match ups, the values and leadership skills that you group values will become evident and repeat. It may even give you a paradigmatic leader to embody.


Step 2: Provide consistent value-based feedback

believe in yourself

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Once you have established your leadership values, you can tie them back to actions you see every day. One great way to do this is to constantly provide value-based feedback. Often we think that periodic, general feedback is sufficient to help our subordinates grow and develop; but by limiting your feedback to every few weeks or months, you miss the opportunity to connect with and develop your team. 

On a daily basis, try to provide feedback to each team member. It’s not always going to be the case that you can provide constructive critical feedback, so try providing positive feedback and encouragement when you don’t have advice or suggestions for improvement.

Random feedback, however, doesn’t do the trick. Your positive feedback should be about something you observe, and how it relates to your/the company/the team’s values. You want to ensure that you are expanding your sphere of influence by having an intentional focus on your team’s values. 

Use this simple formula to help you: 

“Hey, Alex, thank you for [doing x], it really shows [value].”

Here are a few examples of how to provide simple, yet powerful positive feedback to your team on a daily basis: 

  • Tim, thank you for being consistently on-time to work, it really shows you manage your time well.
  • Amara, thank you for being so quick to respond to emails, it really shows you value other people’s time
  • Arjun, thank you for keeping your desk space clear, it really sets an example for being organized to everyone
  • Valentina, thank you for your creative presentation today, it really shows that you take inspiration from things people overlook

This type of feedback motivates in multiple ways. First, it directly calls out positive, or desirable behaviors. Identifying these behaviors and pairing them with positive feedback allows you to develop a positive association with those behaviors. In learning theory this is called establishing a reinforcement relationship. You are pairing a neutral behavior with a positive stimulus. This increases the likelihood that the behavior will happen again.

Motivational leadership wise, this creates a positive relationship between you and your team and shows that you are constantly observing your team. Focusing on positive reinforcement shows that you can be critical, but are also focused on the project’s broader values and group cohesion. The feedback formula we discussed shows that you are not only focused on tangible goals, but also the values you espouse as a team.

marketing your leadership qualities

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Step 3: Marketing your leadership skills to create a culture of accountability

This is one of the most important and challenging parts of being an influencer and a leader. We’ll try to demystify what this big phrase really means and how you can use your leadership skills to enhance your sphere of influence as a leader and develop your leadership skills.

Once you have established your values as a leader and tied these values to actions, it’s time to make your sphere of influence expand and grow. Your leadership skills shouldn’t just be yours, but your effort to brand and market them helps others develop a desire to embody them as well. 

In learning theory this is called social learning. Albert Bandura, a Canadian-American psychologist developed this theory; the common phrase associated is “monkey see, monkey do”. 

It’s a very simple concept, but when you embody certain behaviors that are good and desirable, others learn from your example and want to act similarly. Bandura wasn’t the first to discuss this, it was actually the basis for Aristotle’s theory of social interaction and character. In his two texts on Ethics, Aristotle discusses what is known as virtue theory. Aristotle argues that in order to obtain virtue, one must not simply learn about it but practice it. Practicing your values and behaviors that exemplify them allows you to influence others and help make them want to embody your behaviors as well. 

In your culture of accountability you want to ensure that your team doesn’t only rely on you to enforce your values, but also holds each other accountable. 

Use values codes and plans. One way for them to do this is to have a “values code” that the group comes up with. This isn’t just a code of conduct like you might get from HR, but a values code that allows your team to know what happens when you’re not working together. 

Once you’ve established your leadership values, as a group you should talk about what happens when someone isn’t buying into the group’s work ethic. You might come up with 3 simple rules for what to do, like

  • Rule 1) Address the issue. Directly address the issue with the person who is transgressing. Don’t be passive aggressive, but be honest and direct.
  • Rule 2) Remind them of the value. Tell that person how you perceive that behavior, and how you think it is relates to the values you’ve decided to embody as a group.
  • Rule 3) Create a path forward. Talk about how to help them recognize when they aren’t espousing that value, or provide some help getting them back to a good position. (For example, if they’re constantly running late, suggest setting their watch ahead or using calendar reminders to leave early.) 

Another way is to create a phrase or saying that signals when someone isn’t working with the group. Such as: “let your [virtue/value] shine” or “don’t push the [virtue/value] away”. These phrases, while seemingly corny, are good ways for you to all agree how to treat one another with respect, but also be okay discussing flaws. 

Work with those who are struggling. Often when someone isn’t living up to the group standard, there is something beyond/outside of work that is bothering them or keeping them from getting to their full potential. As an influencer you want to be sure that that person is getting the help they need either from you as the leader, or from other members of the team.

So in addition to addressing the specific issue at hand, be sensitive to outside circumstances that may be affecting an employee. Check in on struggling employees, ask questions, and do your best to create an environment of open communication.

Also consider providing extra mentorship or colleague support for struggling employees. This type of mentality is used in Japan for primary school education. It develops a classroom culture where advanced students help struggling students, where the group attempts to build shared values as a group, and where team-work is the key to success. You want to ensure that your team is working together and holding each other accountable.


Recap of 3 steps to improve your leadership skills and circle of influence

Figuring out how to be an influencer and deciding which leadership skills to develop can be difficult. We’ve talked about 3 steps to developing your motivational and inspirational leadership skills. These three steps can help you expand your leadership sphere of influence, and make a bigger impact on the day to day workings of your team or organization. 

Our science, backed 3 steps are: 

  • Identifying and branding your leadership style
  • Provide consistent, positive, value-based feedback
  • Marketing your leadership skills to create a culture of accountability 

In step one, we’ve talked about you identifying and branding your leadership skills and values. Often we just want to jump into being leaders without considering what that means. In the same way that companies take time to think about their values and strengths, you should need to do the same with yourself as a leader! Taking time to develop your leadership “brand” and identify your values is the first step to being an influential leader. 

In step two, we’ve given you a way to help make your values more than just words. You want to attach your values to actions that you see people do on a daily basis. As an influencer you want your words and actions to be pushing your brand as much as possible, and thus, expand your sphere of influence. You can do this using our simple value-based feedback formula. This not only encourages your team to continue or develop behaviors that are consistent with group values, but also helps you establish a strong rapport with them!

In step three, we talked about creating a culture of accountability. This means ensuring that everyone is on the same page about what is expected of them, and how to address when someone isn’t following expectations. You need to remember that it can be difficult to do this in a constructive way. So creating clear expectations about how values and behaviors are linked, or creating a common phrase or template for how team members can self-regulate issues is critical. 

These 3 key steps can help any leader get the most out of their current and developing leadership skills. Remember that you being in a leadership role doesn’t guarantee you inspire and motivate people. Just like a brand, you need to “market” yourself to your team to show that you are the real deal, and a leader they want to follow.