As we grow, both as individuals and with respect to our organizations, we move through stages. Early on we pursue what interests us — without much analysis. Later, we begin to think not just about our interests, but about possible outcomes. Ultimately, we are led to attempt to define the key ingredients of success.

We learn these insights two principal ways: some come from listening to those who are older and wiser — and I have been very fortunate in my career to have had some great mentors —but many lessons are best remembered when learned through hard-won experience.

When it comes to leadership, both of these avenues come into play. Becoming better as a leader is much like becoming better as a craftsman or an athlete. Before you can improve, you need to identify the skills of those who have achieved high levels of leadership, then learn how to develop them for yourself. As with a craft or a sport, you need to invest time toward improving these skills — and that means practice. On-the-job training helps, but life moves too fast to expect that you will gain these skills just by doing your job. To achieve high results, you need to get out of your comfort zone and stretch your leadership muscles. And you need to persevere, because without strong leadership a company cannot create sustainable growth, find and retain top-notch employees, or consistently see positive returns.

What It Takes Here are the skills and traits you will need to improve your leadership ability:

Communication. Your success as a leader depends directly on how well you communicate. That includes both written and oral communication, and both can be improved through frequent practice. Good communicators not only speak and write well, they understand the importance of selecting the proper message to communicate. They also know how important it is to choose to whom they communicate, and to customize the message and delivery technique depending on the audience. Improving communication skills should be a priority if you want to become a great leader.

Long-range thinking. A great leader has long-term vision and thought-patterns. A craftsman needs to plan the upcoming week's activity. A project manager needs to be able to project out a month or two. But a leader has to be able to see both of these, as well as look six months to three years ahead.

Empathy. Great leaders really care. They care about the product, the client experience, their team, and the world around them. They appreciate their good fortune at occupying a leadership position, and they don't take its responsibilities for granted.

High work ethic. Great leaders walk their talk. They know how to roll up their sleeves and work very hard to meet their goals and the goals of their organizations. They are accountable and take the consequences of their decisions seriously. They work hard not merely for personal gain, but for the team win.

Passion. Great leaders not only love what they do, but are passionate about their role in the organization. This passion is contagious and serves to inspire others. But great leaders also guard against allowing their passion to overshadow or dominate the achievements of others. They know how to keep their ego in check, and they are quick to recognize the passion of others and to acknowledge their contributions.

If your goal is to grow and flourish, first look in the mirror. Take inventory of your leadership skills, then commit to improving them. Your hard work won't go unrewarded.

—Mark Richardson is president of Case Design/Remodeling and Case Handyman Services, Bethesda, Md. He was recently named a Maryland Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for 2006.