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illustration of leader at the bottom of the mountain with five flags to the top

5 Critical Skills Which Underpin Effective Leadership

Management Futures
October 31, 2023

Over the last 30 years, we’ve been privileged to work alongside some brilliant leaders.

Leaders skilled in creating positive high performing environments. Environments that deliver effective results over a sustained period of time and that people love to work in.

7 years ago, we started to ask ourselves the question ‘what are the specific skills these leaders excel at?’

Our research has highlighted 5 critical skill sets. These are set out below.

All leaders will have strengths within these, and it’s important we make the most of natural strengths.

It’s not about trying to be perfect at all 5. Although to be successful, we believe you do need to pay attention to all 5. We’ve observed many leaders with enormous potential fail to be as effective as they might because of a critical weakness in one of these skills. In other words, ignoring any one of them can become a ‘career derailer’.

As you read through the 5 skill sets, you may find it useful to rate yourself on them using the 4 point scale below.

If you’re interested in developing the leadership skills of others in your organisation, you may also want to reflect on which you’d most want to ‘dial up’ in your leadership population.

4 = A consistent strength.
3 = Generally good, but definitely have times when I’m not at my best. A potential strength I want to work on.
2 = Can be good at this sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Would definitely like to work on improving this.
1 = Key area of weakness which I recognise is affecting my impact and effectiveness as a leader.

Note: Each of the 5 skill sets are made up of a number of individual skills. While closely related, leaders can be strong in some aspects of the skill set, and not others. If this is the case, score yourself 3 or 2 in this skillset, reflecting that there are aspects you still want/need to work on.

Skillset 1: Inspirational

  • They have great personal impact when speaking.
  • They inspire people with absolute clarity of focus – clarity on goals, strategy, their role and standards.
  • They engage people at a personal level, building trust and a feeling of belonging.
  • When seeking to influence, they engage in two-way dialogue, genuinely seeking to listen to, and consider other people’s concerns or counter views.
  • They are able to communicate a vision for change with a simplicity and power that others embrace.

Skillset 2: A coaching approach

  • They believe in people’s potential, give them responsibility and have the skills to draw out, and develop their talents.
  • They ask a lot of open questions, and they listen.
  • They use these coaching skills to support a culture of continuous improvement, facilitating debriefs.
  • They are inclusive - actively seeking out diversity of thought.
  • They constantly are on the lookout for biases that might lead them to underestimate someone’s talents.
  • They care about people and place a high value on wellbeing.

Skillset 3: Courageous conversations

  • They don’t avoid important conversations, and they’re skilled at having them. They combine psychological safety with direct feedback; with their team, peers, more senior leaders or stakeholders.
  • They encourage others to be candid with them - seeking out and responding positively to candid feedback and challenge.
  • They help people to grow and develop with specific feedback they can act on immediately. They notice people doing the ‘right’ things and highlight where people can improve.
  • They are skilled at challenging whilst conveying respect and an openness to being wrong.

Skillset 4: Building teamwork

  • They are great collaborators. They are constantly alert to the needs of others and invest time in building high trust relationships.
  • They strike a good balance between speaking up and listening up in any group conversation.
  • They are skilled at building high performing teams. They galvanise people behind shared objectives, and emphasise the importance of teamwork. They instil a culture of collaboration and psychological safety, within teams and across functions. They ensure every voice is heard.
  • They encourage a culture of teaming across functions, encouraging people to work together to solve problems and support each other. They challenge unhelpful tribal behaviour where it occurs.

Skillset 5: Leadership of self

  • They’re good at ruthlessly prioritising their time – not letting ‘nice to dos’ get in the way of what matters most. They also balance their time between adding value for today and for tomorrow.
  • They are very self-aware of their strengths and have learned to make the most of them. There are also cognisant of potential blind spots, inviting people around them to call out when these blind spots create issues.
  • They know what triggers them, and are masters at managing their response in difficult situations. They stay calm and composed under pressure.
  • They’re relentless in their pursuit of being the best leader they can be. This drives them to seek out feedback.
  • They adapt well to change. They remain calm but alert. They spot new trends early, and the opportunities or threats they bring. They’re comfortable with ambiguity, and learn as they go.  

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