The Leadership Skills List: A Complete Guide to Key Terms and Concepts
Leadership is a skill we all want to develop and master, but sometimes finding the words to describe it is challenging.
Here’s your go-to guide for defining leadership terms—and some from organizational life too!
Accountability – Taking ownership and seeing things through. Fessing up when you’re wrong and working to make things right.
Active Listening – Listening to understand, with care and interest, enabling you to offer an authentic response. If you’re preparing your response when others are still talking, you aren’t actively listening.
After Action Review (AAR) – As the saying goes, with hindsight being 20/20, an AAR is an opportunity for all project partners to reflect on how a project went. Discuss the process and ask questions. What worked well? What didn’t work well? What would we do the same? What would we do differently the next time? Document the findings to help inform and guide future projects.
Attributes – Qualities based on your knowledge, skills, and abilities that help you shine and add value.
Authentic Leadership – Real. Honest. Caring. Guidance. Supportive. Trustworthy. Being yourself.
Authoritarian Leadership – Making decisions based only on your own ideas and judgments, rarely accepting or asking for others’ input. See “boss-hole.”
Authority – Someone who is able to make decisions and give directions.
Awesome – Inspiring AWE. Impressive. Excellence.
Bad Boss – See ‘bosshole.’
Beliefs – Fundamental ideas of how you view and respond to the world and the people around you.
Benchmarking – Observing and comparing for the purpose of performance measurement to achieve “best in industry” status. Seeing how you stack up against the competition as an organization, a person, or between internal departments.
Bias for Action – Preference to do something rather than sit and wait. If you have a bias for action, you’re action-oriented and avoid spin, such as meeting after meeting and believing in moving work forward.
Boss-hole – Boss+asshole. Don’t be one. Self-centered. Disliked by all. Always has the weakest team with low morale.
Boss-ome – Boss+awesome. An awesome boss. A leader people choose to follow. Embodies the best in leadership qualities. Exhibits human qualities and celebrates those in others. Able to admit to human behavior but committed to creating an enjoyable, productive workplace where those who wish to can excel.
Brainstorming – A collaborative, spontaneous, sometimes messy, fun exercise to gather ideas from a group where all input is welcome and nothing is wrong. Intended to generate new, creative solutions and concepts.
Bottom Line – Underlying or ultimate outcome: final answer. The limit of what’s possible.
Cadence – Pace, a pattern, or sequence.
Carrots and Sticks – A poor excuse for motivation where rewards (carrots) and discipline (sticks) are used to incentivize desired behaviors and outcomes with little regard for individuals as individuals. Often used by boss-holes.
Character – What a person is really like. Beliefs, values, behaviors, and actions combine to define who a person truly is.
Choose Awesome – Intentional, writing and creating your own story. Succeeding on your own terms. Doing work that matters. Seeing the world as it could be, not for what it is today. Living YOUR life, and not letting other people define you, what you do, or how you do it.
Circle of Safety – A term from speaker and author Simon Sinek that refers to creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up with no fear of repercussions or punishments for being honest, authentic, sharing their ideas, and giving feedback. In creating circles of safety, people feel supported to bring and share their awesome ideas and do their best work. See “boss-ome.”
Climate – The mood or vibe of a situation. Climate can change based on internal and external conditions. Similar to “morale.”
Coaching – Believing in others. Encouraging, guiding, and supporting them in reaching their potential and goals. Leading from behind.
Collaboration – Working together, combining ideas from many to produce great outcomes for all. Avoids seeking credit for individual contributions. When done right, it’s awesome. See “awesome.”
Commitment – Agreeing to something and following through. See “accountability” and “boss-ome.”
Competencies – Distinct characteristics and skill sets you bring to your work that make your performance awesome. See “awesome.”
Conflict of Interest – Investing time, energy, or resources into a competing priority that benefits you, your family, or friends personally, and detracts from the team and/or organization. In some cases, it’s illegal. See “boss-hole.”
Command and Control – A military term that made its way unfortunately into the workplace. See “boss-hole.”
Conscious Leadership – Being aware and focused on the awesome responsibility you have as a leader and the impact your words, behaviors, and actions have on others.
Continuous Improvement – Wanting to always get better, looking for opportunities to be and do better.
Core Values – Usually three or four fundamental, innate concepts you have about the world that influence your actions, behaviors, and responses. Maybe not articulated, but they’re there. See “character.”
Courage – Pushing through despite being scared, fearful, afraid, or unsure. Doing whatever it is anyway because it’s the right thing to do and must be done even when no one else will speak up or step up.
Creativity – Generating new and unique ideas and approaches with no limitations based on what has been done before. Often requires courage. See “courage.”
Culture Add – Recognizing that sameness sucks and there’s tremendous value in diverse ideas, experiences, and backgrounds others have to strengthen and grow an organization and its people.
Culture – Language, behaviors, and values of an organization. Present whether or not organizations recognize it. Pockets of cultures exist within organizations, to their good or detriment, because of boss-holes or boss-ome leaders.
Decision-Making – The process of making choices by gathering facts, information, and input. Should not be done alone or in a vacuum, especially when decisions will impact other people.
Delegate – Sharing responsibilities, tasks, and opportunities with others, allowing for and trusting their ability to add to the greater good. Not hovering over those to whom responsibility has been given with defined inputs in mind.
Development – Cultivating and growing talent and skills in yourself and others. See “coaching.”
Diversity – Respecting, appreciating, seeking, and valuing everyone and their unique backgrounds and experiences.
Documentation – In the world of Human Resources, records, emails, notes, photos, and anything else kept on employees. Should be done out of necessity, not pragmatism (see “boss-hole”). Often asked for by HR when personnel issues are brought to them. Check with HR to understand what you legally can document and what you can’t.
Emotional Intelligence – Being socially aware and paying attention to the responses of others, verbal or otherwise. You know when people have Emotional Intelligence and when they lack it. Boss-holes have none.
Empathy – Putting yourself in the shoes of others and almost literally experiencing their thoughts and feelings. Listening with care and concern but stopping short of feeling sorry for or judging.
Employee Engagement – Satisfaction of employees working for you. Engagement level positively impacts business results. Can be measured in different ways. It’s like taking the temperature of a team or organization.
Empowerment – Trusting and believing in others to take on a challenge or task that you could do but are giving to others as an opportunity to learn, grow, and perform without having to ask permission first. See “delegate.”
Engaged – Focused. Involved. Interested. Sincere. Caring. Giving a hoot.
Environment – Work conditions, both physical and personal. Vibe. Feelings often created by leaders.
Ethics – What’s right or wrong based on societal norms. Choices made because it’s the right thing to do, even when the right choice may have adverse personal effects.
Executing – Delivering. Performing. Completing. Getting stuff done.
Executive Summary – Telling the story of essential information in a brief, punchy, and to-the-point way.
Exempt – To be free from. Often concerning overtime pay. Having an exempt status means you don’t get overtime pay and non-exempt status means you are entitled to overtime according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). HR can provide greater detail.
Fear-Based Leadership – The use of fear to control instead of trusting people and inspiring them to do great things. A leader who doesn’t do the right thing out of their own fear. See “boss-hole” and “command and control.”
Feedback – Sharing of opinions and comments about your observations of an individual with that person. When done well, it works to improve performance and is welcome. Boss-holes aren’t good at delivering feedback so the word may have a negative meaning for some.
Flexibility – Being able to work under different conditions and adjusting expectations to meet the moment and needs. The opposite of routine or being in a rut. People lacking “emotional intelligence” often have difficulty with being flexible. Boss-ome leaders can coach those who need help adapting to flexibility.
Follow Up – Getting back to people. The right thing to do. Gives you credibility. If you don’t do it, see “boss-hole.” Overlaps with “feedback.”
Forced Ranking – Listing employees by putting them in order from top to bottom based on performance or some other metric. Often subjective rather than objective. A real BS thing to do and often used by “boss-holes.” If you are asked to this, your organization isn’t a good one to work for, so get out.
Forecast – Predicting the future of results based on past data.
FTE (Full Time Equivalent) – A term used to categorize the number of employees, usually used by payroll. See “boss-hole” if you use this term to refer to your employees: “I have 4 FTEs working for me.”
Good Leadership Traits – See “boss-ome.” To learn leadership see “The Awesome Leader League.”
Group Think – Avoiding thinking as an individual. Letting yourself be overly influenced by others. Can be dangerous. Not to be confused with brainstorming, delegating, diversity, etc.
Headcount – Often referred to the total number of employees; see “FTE” and “boss-hole” if you use this term to refer to your employees: “I’m responsible for 5 headcount.”
Human-Centered – Leading in a way that focuses on engaging with the hearts and minds of people. Seeing them as unique individuals, not cogs in a machine or system. See “boss-ome.”
Human Skills – The ability to relate to people, their uniqueness, situations, and respond appropriately. Can also be called “soft skills,” although there’s nothing soft about them.
Humility – Having a humble and honest spirit. Setting your ego aside. Not being afraid to be wrong. Not feeling you are better than anyone else.
Inclusion – Not excluding any individual or group. Proactively appealing to all types of people.
Individual Development Plan (IDP) – Setting goals and objectives for your own growth and development. May extend to those you lead.
Influencing – The ability to persuade to achieve desired outcomes. Best when it comes from “coaching” or “human skills” rather than a position of power.
Innovation – Coming up with something completely new and different. Generating new knowledge or ideas. Could also be expanding on existing knowledge or an idea, putting a new spin on it. See “brainstorming.”
Integrity – Doing the right thing. Being honest and ethical.
Ideation – The process of generating new thoughts, solutions, or opportunities. Can be synonymous with brainstorming.
Just In Time Learning – Quick to consume and available when you need it. Opposite of the common “just in case learning,” where everything is dumped on you at once with the expectation you’ll remember it should a situation arise that you need that knowledge.
Key Performance Indicator (KPI) – A scorecard of objectives or metrics to measure what “success” looks like.
Leader – The one that goes first. Takes responsibility. Can be anyone.
Leadership Development – The process of learning and developing the skills and qualities necessary for being an effective leader. See “The Awesome Leader League.”
Leadership Skills Training – See “The Awesome Leader League.”
Leadership Style – The tone and approach of how you lead.
Learning – Development that you want to engage in to grow. Should not be forced or mandated.
Life-Long Learner – Someone who stays curious, never stops learning or trying new things.
Long-Term – Happens over time. Like a marathon versus a sprint.
Manager – Governing yourself and processes. That’s it. You don’t manage people; see “boss-hole.” You lead others.
Measurement – Collecting data points on performance. Can be used for good or evil.
Mentee – A person receiving guidance and advice for their continued development.
Mentor – Someone who provides guidance and advice to further the development of another.
Mentorship – Sometimes a formal process pairing a mentee with a mentor. Best done as an informal process rather than a pairing mandated through a formal HR program.
Micromanage – Attempt to control every detail large and small of a process. See “boss-hole.”
Mindfulness – Being aware of your surroundings, feelings, and impact of behaviors.
Mission Statement – A concise statement defining the purpose of an organization. Sharing what they do, how they do it, and who they do it for.
Morale – Measure of the collective happiness and positive attitude of people.
Motivation – A reason for doing something.
New Leader Transition (NLT) – A workshop designed to shorten the learning curve for you and your team on how best to work together and be awesome.
Non-Exempt – An HR term. See “exempt.”
Off Boarding – The process for the transfer of knowledge and responsibilities when someone leaves your team or organization.
Onboarding – The process of acculturating or orienting a new person to your team and the organization.
One-on-one or 1-1 – A meeting between two people. Often used in the context between a leader and a team member. Focuses often on job progress and career development. Very helpful to build a great relationship with your individual team members.
On The Job Training (OJT) – Hands-on training and learning that occurs while performing and doing a job rather than learning what to do in a formal classroom environment.
Optics – A scientific term that’s been hijacked in the business and political worlds to refer to how something is viewed or seen. Unless talking about the physics of light, don’t use it. Use “perception” instead, or just “it doesn’t look good.”
Optimism – A belief in a generally positive future. Not to be confused with a perfect or easy future.
Ownership – See “accountability.”
Passion – A heightened focus or interest in something.
Perception – The way something is viewed by others. It’s unique, individual to each viewer.
Perfection – A quality rarely achieved and often not necessary (unless you’re a brain surgeon). The pursuit of perfection often results in excellence, which is a desirable outcome.
Performance Development Plan (PDP) – A collection of objectives or tasks an individual is expected to achieve over a period of time. Often abused by boss-holes as a technique to manage people.
Personal Development Plan – A collection of objectives or tasks YOU decide you want to develop in areas that interest your for your growth and goals. Different from a Performance Development plan which is often assigned to you. With a personal development plan, you set the objectives and direction.
Present – To be genuinely aware and engaged with those around you.
Process Improvement – The betterment of a system or way of working. Something to continually strive for.
Productivity – Measurement of output. Can be used to force rank people or as a demotivator. Often at odds with the pursuit of excellence.
Project Management – Focused guidance on a unique product or service.
Positivity – The refusal to be weighed down by the negative aspects of a situation.
Radical Candor – Started as a term meaning to be direct with communication. Boss-holes have commandeered the phrase as a way to label negative feedback or dissenting opinions under the cloak of “brutal honesty,” so now it often lacks authenticity and a genuine interest in anything other than self.
Retaliation – Personal attacks on others over a perceived wrongdoing. Revenge. Watch out for organizations that have a record of this.
Retention – Measure of those who choose to remain with your organization. High retention rates may indicate a good organization to work for or a good individual to work with.
Recognition – Acknowledge of effort or achievement. Should be done sincerely and frequently, and in concert with how individuals prefer to be recognized.
Responsibility – Ownership of a task. Multiple people can be responsible but only one person can be accountable.
Right Fit – Term used to identify a match between a person’s skills and the job requirements. Can be abused by boss-holes to label or discriminate against someone they don’t want to work with or develop.
Scope – The collection of deliverables and objectives that make up a project.
Self-Aware – Able to see yourself, actions, and behaviors as others see you.
Sensitivity – Attuned to the feelings and perceptions of others.
Servant Leadership – A leadership practice with a focus on providing for the needs and care of others.
Short-term – A focus on things that will happen in the near future, often at the expense of things that may happen over time.
Sincerity – Genuine, with an authentic approach to others.
Soft Skills – Interpersonal and relationship skills, though there’s nothing soft about them. They are challenging and difficult. Some would say hard to master. See “human skills.”
Standards – Established measurement thresholds for performance. A baseline against which to measure performance. A profession may adopt standards that must be complied with or conformed to as a regulatory matter. Failure to meet basic standards warrants coaching, training, or in some cases, termination.
Strategic Thinking – Using an approach to achieve a goal or objective that may not be apparent, easy, or fast. A method to consider the short- and long-term goals of an organization.
Strategy – A thoughtful viewpoint and plan to executive on a problem or objective, or a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
Stretch Assignment – A task with the purpose of challenging and developing a person’s existing skills and abilities. Sometimes used by boss-holes to make an otherwise lame assignment look attractive or give an employee something to do outside the normal roles and responsibilities that they may not wish to do themselves. Could be used as a way to set a person up for failure. Could also be used to give a person an opportunity to shine.
Supportive – Genuinely interested and engaged in the success of others.
Tactics – Approaches to solve a particular problem or achieve an objective. Tactics often support strategies and goals.
Teamwork – A group of people who come together to achieve a common goal.
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Top Line – Like a headline when you’re too lazy to read the whole article. Can lack substance and nuance. Be careful when using.
Total Compensation – A term used to describe all the other things an employer may offer in addition to a paycheck. Insurance, free lunch, parking allowance, bonuses, and discounts are often lumped under the total compensation umbrella.
Transactional Leadership – This-for-that leadership. You do this, you get that.
Transparency – Being open and honest. Not holding back information.
Trust – Genuine belief that you can depend on someone. That they have your back no matter what.
Unbiased – Without predisposition or a preconceived definition or notion. Always learning and listening to form opinions based on the best information available.
Value-Add – A way of describing something that has additional or incremental positive attributes.
Values – Organizational or personal core beliefs of what’s important.
Vision – Thoughtful, long-term perspective. Should motivate people to adopt the mission and values of an organization.
Wisdom – The accumulation of useful knowledge. And knowing when it is used to the better advantage.
Wheelhouse – The room on a riverboat or sailing vessel that has the rudder controls. Unfortunately, the term has been adopted by business, often used by boss-holes to describe core competencies, skills, or responsibilities. Avoid using and saying, “not in my wheelhouse.”
Yielding – On the positive side, allow or giving way for another to progress. On the negative side, not being able to stand up for one’s self.
Zealous – Enthusiastic, focused, obsessed. Being devoted to a cause greater than one’s self.