Becoming a Leader: 6 Ideas for Today’s World

Read books by comedians. Avoid “happy talk.” Our experts weigh in on the latest ways to build up leadership skills.

Becoming a better leader normally involves, well, being a leader. Indeed, most leadership experts say about 70% of learning and development comes from challenging assignments that force leaders to learn new skills. The rest of that development usually involves hours of training seminars, working with coaches, and dedicating oneself to become more self-aware, mindful, and reflective.

In a pandemic, of course, much of that training wasn’t possible. But the skill sets for being a strong leader—of a team, a department, or an entire company—couldn’t have been more in demand, and still are. Only these days, leadership-building advice has been shifting, with greater emphasis on careful listening, more transparency, and greater probing. Below, a host of our tips—some fairly standard, some unorthodox—to grow into a better leader.

Say it straight.

Journalists learn that if a story doesn’t state who, what, where, when, and why, then the story isn’t clear. Experts say that’s something leaders should keep in mind. Indeed, leaders can get into trouble if they aren’t transparent about what to do, when to finish it, how to do it, and why it needs to be done.

Leaders also should avoid “happy talk,” or empty platitudes that can muddle the issue, says Dennis Carey, vice chair and coleader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “If something could apply to any company when you say it out loud, it’s useless because it’s too generic,” he says.

Actually listen.

There are reams of research indicating people aren’t very good listeners. That’s particularly true when the topic involves something distressing or uncomfortable.

A leader who listens can help build trust among stakeholders, improve employee engagement, and even lower those stakeholders’ stress levels, says Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. Anyone can start a technique called “active listening” right away. Instead of thinking about your response, which is what most people do when others are talking, take in what is being said and repeat it back in different terms to show that you understand and can place yourself in the other person’s shoes. At a minimum, don’t cut people off or ignore what they’re saying. “I don’t think you need a lot of skill for that,” Orr says.

After listening, ask questions.

This isn’t new advice; it’s the Socratic method. But there’s a reason why it has lasted a few thousand years. It stimulates critical thinking and can draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. Asking questions, by its very nature, invites comments and conversations. Research shows that expressing vulnerability, which is what a question is, is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return.

To be sure, these questions shouldn’t be accusatory, such as “How could you miss the production targets?” Instead, ask questions that invite people to explore major new opportunities. Experts say that when a leader asks questions, it gives employees the freedom to ask questions also. Questions can spur innovation and literally change a corporate culture.

Specifically ask “What would you do?”

Asking this question is particularly empowering, experts say, because it gives a subordinate or a peer the chance to be in the driver’s seat. Serious employees will learn to think critically to find solutions that can work or, at the least, bring a new perspective that the leader hasn’t thought of before. 

Even if an employee doesn’t have an answer, he or she usually appreciates that you, the leader, are open to suggestions. Asking “What would you do?” can lead to higher employee empowerment, engagement, and productivity, says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s global vice president for human resources.


Many leaders have to-do lists that give every task equal weight, like a grocery shopping list. But effectively prioritizing allows leaders to figure out which areas they should spend their valuable time. More broadly, when a leader sets priorities, it helps create meaningful tasks for teams.

Especially now, when people have been overloaded with work for more than a year due to the pandemic, prioritizing is essential. “Leaders who prioritize for themselves help their teammates as well,” says Melissa Swift, Korn Ferry’s head of workforce transformation.

Read books… by comedians.

There are countless leadership books out there, including several by Korn Ferry authors. They’re filled with good advice. But Kevin Cashman, one of those Korn Ferry authors, suggests that corporate leaders can learn as much from funny people, citing books by George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, and Steve Martin. Nearly all comedians consistently have to deal with pressure, adversity, and second-guessing, and nearly every comedian has learned the importance of being agile. Leaders can take away valuable lessons from improv, along with stories about awe, surprise, and irony, says Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and enterprise leader development.

To be sure, a leader will have to read these books before using any of the insights. But they can be read in a day. Like most stand-up routines, books by comedians tend not to be very long. SeinLanguage, Seinfeld’s 1995 collection of personal observations, is less than 200 pages.