As the force behind your business, you have many titles—founder, owner, CEO, president, CFO, head of recruitment and hiring… and the list goes on. But the one thing behind all of the titles, is leadership. Your leadership, specifically. And a really good leader is more than just effective; it’s someone who is inspiring, motivating and crucial to the success of the enterprise, especially small enterprises, where there are fewer people and thinner margins, so less room for mistakes.

Your leadership abilities may be something you’re not particularly conscious of day-to-day but rest assured your employees are—they are judging your competency as a leader and the decisions you make every day and look to you for guidance as leaders themselves. The success of your business is connected in many ways to your leadership ability and traits.

Even if you believe in such a thing as a “born leader,” every one of us can find ways to improve our leadership skills, enhance our abilities and become better, all the way around. Here are five critical steps to take toward better, smarter leadership:

  1. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes.

The operative word here is empathy—trying to understand what it feels like to work for you. One of the best ways to improve as a leader is to ask those around you for some feedback. Your employees have the most immediate and relevant perspective, so get them to weigh in—anonymously—about your strengths and weaknesses.  

Rather than being really specific about it, create an employee survey that asks employees how they feel about the company generally and include questions about your leadership performance. Ask for suggestions about where you might improve.

Leadership expert Lolly Daskal says it best:

“What’s empathy have to do with leadership? Everything. Because leadership is about having the ability to relate and connect and listen and bond with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

  1. Be positive.

Being a positive leader may sound trite, but your business’ culture and your employees attitude can shift depending on your attitude. When the going gets tough, smart leaders remain calm and confident, and can either see a way out or embrace the failure. Good leaders see failures (those, of course, that aren’t threatening to topple their business) as opportunities to learn something. And having a positive outlook on failure will encourage your staff to innovate and ask questions, and they will feel positive toward you and the business too.

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As the company’s chief executive you are also the role-model-in-chief, and that means your actions and attitude set the tone at your company and help define its culture. Your actions and conduct should be ones you want your employees to emulate and should implicitly establish expectations for how employees will behave at the office, treat one another and treat customers.

  1. Learn from others.

It’s lonely at the top, which is why organizations like Vistage and the Entrepreneurs Organization exist. Especially at a small business, where you function as more than one C-level exec, you need to understand what you’re doing right and wrong, and changes you can make to take your leadership skills up a notch (or two). To be the best leader you can, look at those who have held similar positions and both succeeded and failed. They can be peers or well-known business leaders– analyze their performance and the performance of their companies and compare it to your own, taking into account variables you can’t control like where they are located and what the economy is like both locally and nationally.

It’s also a good idea to find a mentor. There is always more you can learn and to do that, find someone you trust—whether it’s an old boss, a friend, a colleague (former or present)–to meet with regularly and get feedback on specific issues or your general job performance. Ideally, you connect with another senior executive, but one with significant experience running a business in your industry.

  1. Raise your emotional IQ.

Emotional intelligence is widely accepted today as a critical characteristic of good leaders. It’s defined as an ability to understand and manage our emotions or the emotions of those around us. Having a high emotional IQ gives you the ability to manage relationships and influence others. It also makes you a self-aware leader, able to recognize your own emotions as they form, and see them rising to the surface in others. If, for example, someone on your team just missed a deadline and starts to point fingers, you can see—before you choose to react—that they are feeling defensive, worried about their job, fearful. Knowing that, you can choose to respond in a way that reassures them and tells them you support them and together, as a team, you’ll work through the difficulty.

[Tweet “”Emotional IQ makes you a self-aware leader, able to recognize your emotions as they form.””]

Emotional intelligence gives you an understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses and you can see what is happening as your employees respond to different situations, actions or a crisis. A high EIQ benefits leaders in other ways too, by enhancing communication skills, especially knowing what to say to motivate employees and to resolve workplace conflicts.

  1. Be an effective communicator.

One of the most effective ways to improve your leadership skills is to communicate with your employees. Make sure your team knows they can discuss any workplace issue with you. Be approachable and a good listener—make eye contact when an employee is speaking with you (don’t, for example, look at your phone or down at the sheaf of papers on your desk). Give them real attention by listening and, if necessarily, repeating back to them what they say, showing you heard and making sure you understood, correctly. Let your employees know their conversation with you is confidential, and that will help build trust.

The best corporate leaders also adopt a constructive and encouraging tone with employees, one that’s never patronizing or critical in a negative way. Instead, take a breath before you drop a snide or sarcastic remark and instead find a way to respond that’s both constructive and measured. Don’t give knee-jerk emotional responses. Stop, breathe and think about how you want your employees to hear you.