If you’ve never had a professional job before, you might be wondering — how can I possibly have leadership skills? Yet you don’t need to hold a leadership position to have leadership skills. You can build these skills through academic projects, extracurricular activities, online courses, and more. Once you do, you can add them to your resume to catch the attention of employers and stand out in your application. Here’s your step-by-step guide.
>>MORE: Discover the right career for you based on your skills with a career aptitude test.
What Are Leadership Skills?
Leadership skills are the soft skills you use to unite people working toward a common goal. Senior leaders use these skills in the workplace to inspire their employees to work toward business goals. Yet employees who aren’t in the C-suite can use these skills too, whether to lead a brainstorming session, lay out project goals, or decide how the team should spend next month’s budget.
8 Leadership Skills Examples for Students
There are eight main pillars of leadership skills examples: decision-making, communication, active listening, feedback, influence, prioritization, motivation, and adaptability.
Decision-making is the ability to make a clear choice based on the information you have. Every workday, we make hundreds of decisions — from what channel the marketing team should target to whether we should add an exclamation point to the end of our Slack message.
To be a good decision-maker, you need analytical skills to sort through information, creative thinking to brainstorm original solutions, and communication skills to discuss decisions with others (more on that below!).
If you’re an entry-level employee, decision-making skills might look like:
- Choosing what software to use for a company webinar
- Figuring out the best email subject line to use in a marketing email
- Deciding between two graphics to post on the company’s social media
As a leader, you need communication skills to effectively motivate others, collaborate with them, and share updates. These skills include verbal communication skills, or the skills you use when speaking live with others, and written communication skills when you’re emailing or messaging someone.
At work, you can use communication skills to:
- Share results on a project you worked on and discuss what worked and what didn’t
- Clarify your understanding of a topic by asking insightful questions
- Summarize the main points of a meeting so everyone’s on the same page
While you need to be able to talk to others effectively to be a good leader, you also need to be a good listener. Active listening is when you’re a focused, engaged listener. This skill is crucial at work for understanding what your colleagues are working on, any challenges they might have, and their goals.
While senior leaders need to be active listeners to help understand their direct reports’ career goals and day-to-day blockers, these skills are essential for employees at any level. Examples of active listening at work include:
- Following when your manager gives you instructions so you know exactly what to do
- Understanding what issue your client is talking about so you can remedy it
- Empathizing when your coworker shares a challenge they’re working on
A good leader knows that no one is perfect (including themselves!) and everyone can benefit from safe, constructive feedback. Feedback is when someone shares their opinions and ideas about someone else’s work.
Feedback isn’t just for official reviews when someone’s up for a promotion or a raise. This skill is valuable during any day, at any scale in the workplace. It helps us improve our work, work better together, and build our careers in the long run. Feedback might look like:
- Shouting out your coworker because you were impressed with their recent presentation
- Asking constructive questions about a goal for an upcoming project
- Providing suggestions on a project for how it can be more efficient
Leadership skills are your ability to motivate people toward a goal, which means you influence what people do. Influence doesn’t mean you’re barking orders, but inspiring and persuading others to get on board with the company’s work.
As an entry-level employee, you might not think you have much influence over others. That isn’t true! Influence for junior employees might look like:
- Showing others a new process you’ve adopted and convincing them to adopt it as well
- Encouraging others to collaborate on a project with you by sharing why it’s important
- Gaining support for a new strategy by presenting your ideas
Prioritization can be an independent time management skill that helps you complete your work. As a leader, prioritization is essential to ensure no one’s time is wasted and everyone focuses on projects they care about and that meet business goals.
For an entry-level employee, prioritization might look like:
- Organizing your daily workload so you get tasks done before the deadline
- Focusing on projects that will build your job skills and help meet business goals
- Saying “no” to projects that require excessive resourcing or don’t align with your team’s goals
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Leaders motivate people to feel excited about what they’re working on. Someone with leadership skills can connect what might seem like a trivial task to the company’s overall goals or reframe a project as a career-building experience.
Examples of motivation at work include:
- Sharing new ideas during a brainstorming session or strategy meeting
- Approaching work with a positive attitude and excited demeanor
- Encouraging coworkers when they’re stuck or working on something challenging
Finally, the most stable thing about the workplace is that it’s constantly changing. Goals, teams, strategies, and resources all change. A great leader is flexible and readjusts to new circumstances.
Adaptability skills in the workplace include:
- Learning a new software tool that’s just been released
- Reprioritizing tasks based on revised project goals
- Changing a process based on feedback from a coworker
Why Are Leadership Skills Important for Students?
Why do leadership skills matter for students aiming to land entry-level roles? These skills demonstrate not just what kind of employee you are now but what kind of employee you can be.
“Leadership skills are vital for entry-level employees, even if they’re not in leadership positions,” says career coach Ilam Padmanabhan. “These skills include the ability to collaborate, communicate effectively, problem-solve, and take initiative. They demonstrate an individual’s potential for growth within the company. Additionally, these skills can enhance team dynamics, contribute to project success, and help the employee navigate through workplace challenges.”
Rachel Doherty, who has over ten years of experience recruiting students, says employers look for candidates with leadership skills — especially in entry-level roles — as they’re more challenging skills to cultivate and therefore highly valuable.
“[Leadership] isn’t reserved for CEOs of global companies,” she says. “We witness business, civic, and community leadership in action every day. Leadership skills, such as taking responsibility, communication, persistence, using initiative, self-confidence, and emotional intelligence, require practice and experience to develop. They are often referred to as ‘soft’ skills, or ‘people skills,’ and they are some of the most challenging to learn. These skills are some of the most in-demand skills by employers, which means they are always valuable to have in your skill toolkit.”
How to Build Leadership Skills
You don’t need professional work experience — or work experience at all! — to build leadership skills. Instead, you can build skills by taking on leadership roles in different organizations, leading various projects, or even showing initiative by learning new skills.
Ways to build your leadership skills in college include:
- Starting a new club or team at your school
- Taking on a leadership role in an extracurricular activity
- Volunteering for a local organization
- Leading a project in your class
- Building new skills you’re interested in in a free online course or Forage job simulation
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“You could also develop a hobby that enables you to develop your skills,” Doherty says. “For example, if you want to develop your writing, website development, or social media skills, start a blog on a topic that interests you and develop your skills by writing content, uploading it to the website, and sharing the content on social media to better understand what is involved in creating engaging content and growing a following.”
Even though you’re not leading others when you build new skills, you’re showing initiative, organization, and dedication — all of which make a good leader.
Leadership Skills: Resume Tips
Two main ways to demonstrate leadership skills on your resume are by illustrating moments you acted as a leader and using strong language to write about them.
“The most impactful resume stories paint a picture that helps the employer envision you in a bigger role,” Jennifer Fishberg, certified professional resume writer, says. “For example, did you hold a full-time job while attending school to help pay your tuition? Even if the job was totally unrelated to your career goal, this shows real initiative, determination, time management, and work ethic. Those are leadership skills. If you completed an internship, did your supervisor ever rely on you to show other new interns the ropes or entrust you with more complex projects?”
When you’re translating these stories into bullet points on your resume, Logan Nguyen, co-founder and CMO of NCHC, a health and wellness magazine, says action verbs are most important.
“Demonstrating your leadership skills is all about showing what you did,” he says. “Using action verbs like launched, led, designed, developed, directed, established, formulated, adapted, etc., give off the impression of a strong and proactive leader.”
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Pairing these action verbs with quantifiable results demonstrates your role in the situation and your impact.
Let’s say you were an editor for your school newspaper. On your resume, you might write, “Managed production of the sports section’s four weekly articles and mentored three new writers.” Maybe you started a coding club. You could write, “Established the university’s first coding club and recruited 12 new members within a year.”
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Leadership Skills for Students: The Bottom Line
It can feel daunting to cultivate and demonstrate leadership skills in your job search when you’re just starting out. But these are crucial soft skills employers look for — and can make you stand out when you include them in your applications.
“Leadership is demonstrated by your actions, not your job title,” Fishberg says. “The good news is, that gives you the power. You don’t have to wait for someone to recognize your leadership potential and give you a chance. If you take the time to listen and observe, there are almost always opportunities to step up. As an entry-level employee, taking on a leadership role within a team or on a special project, for example, can help position you for a promotion, a raise, or your next opportunity. It shows your understanding of the organization’s needs, initiative, and willingness to go above and beyond your job description.”
Learn how to talk about your leadership skills (and more!) in the interview with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s Interview Preparation: Own Your Story program.
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