As a small to medium-sized business owner, it may well be that your business has grown in a rather unplanned fashion. Perhaps as it took off and became more successful, the need grew to bring in new people to support the increased turnover, customer demands and other business functions.

So you may find yourself in the unexpected position of suddenly being a leader of people alongside being an entrepreneur – and that can be a tough transition.

Some people seem to be born leaders. But for those of us for whom it does not come so naturally, is it a skill that can be learned? In fact management theory recognises that there isn’t just one kind of leader, but many different leadership styles. We probably can all identify people who fall into the various categories. There is the autocratic leadership style, which feels somewhat archaic in the modern business environment but which still can have its place in certain situations. The laissez faire leader, on the other hand, minimises his or her actual direction and guidance but develops an efficient team to take the business forward. And the participative leader allows people to develop their own skills and have some autonomy whilst maintaining control at an arm’s length distance – i.e. trust combined with responsibility. Most small- to medium-sized business leaders tend to fall either into the first or third category; taking a hands off approach when it’s your own business is unusual.

Whatever your leadership style, there are some common key areas and skills which differentiate outstanding leaders – although if you’re of an autocratic disposition, some will be more evident than others!

It’s worth thinking about these areas, identified below, and evaluating whether you currently demonstrate them; whether you can incorporate them into the way you run your business; or whether you can learn them through studying, training or emulating others.

The characteristics can be defined in the following ways:

1. Primarily many experts believe the most essential leadership skill is integrity. It’s more than just honesty – it’s about having guiding principles, beliefs and values which influence every decision you make in your business in a consistent manner. Without integrity at the top it is extremely difficult to foster trust within a working environment.
2. Great leaders are marked out by their vision – again something which can be hard when you have been entirely focused on growing your business. It’s about relating your day-to-day activities to your overall strategy for the business; knowing where you want to business to be going beyond this month’s results or budget targets; and developing a long term vision that helps everyone relate to the bigger picture for the business.
3. Communication is also a key element of leadership. How often is the main complaint from employees that the management fails to communicate with them? A two way flow of information is important – the ability to listen to your employees is as vital as talking to them. And also as a leader it’s essential to know when to stay schtum and keep private information private – discretion being the better part of valour.
4. People are central to how any organisation runs, be it ten people or thousands of employees. A leader who is comfortable with dealing with people and who likes to build strong relationships with them will be at an advantage as he or she will be able to forge powerful and loyal teams and gain the respect of employees. So relationship building is another characteristic of powerful leaders.
5. We can all think of great leaders who were great orators – Churchill being the inevitable example. Persuasion is a key skill for great leaders. Part of leadership is getting people to do things that they sometimes don’t want to do, or don’t feel ready to do.
6. Whilst vision and strategy are a key asset for a leader, so is flexibility – and striking a balance between the two skills can be tough. But being able to embrace change and adapt to different circumstances – perhaps even recognising them as an opportunity – is another characteristic of a leader.
7. A great leader understands that he or she can’t do or know everything. The ability to delegate appropriately and to build teams that allow you to focus on the bigger picture is another essential part of leadership – and again, one that the SME owner can find particularly difficult to master.
8. Encouraging those around you, sharing your skills and experience and developing their talents is another characteristic of leaders. A great leader never feels threatened by the abilities of those around him or her – training and development is central to exceptional leadership.
9. Decisiveness is also essential to being a good leader – but again, this should be measured and controlled. Indecision can be fatal to an organisation but similarly hasty decisions can be repented at leisure. Making strong decisions based on good, relevant data in a well-considered way is very important.
10. And finally, planning – which involves making certain assumptions about the future and taking action in the present to influence that future. It’s linked to strategy but also linked the flexibility – the ability to plan for activities and projects but also to think strategically and flexibly is possibly one of the largest leadership balancing acts.

It’s interesting as a business owner to look at this list and evaluate what you’re doing well and where you could improve. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully none of us need to lead in the manner of a Churchill…but there’s no harm in looking at how the great leaders operated and taking a few tips back to our own workplaces.

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. www.nabcommunications.co.uk