Three Categories of Skills to be a Successful Leader

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently participated in emotional discussions about leadership competencies in the Linkedin discussion groups. The discussion generated emotional responses because the participants were trying to agree on which competencies were the most important to achieve successful employee engagement.
After participating for a few days I realized why most organizations continue to struggle to develop quality leadership. Even organizational development consultants and human resource professionals have difficulty agreeing on the same definitions of leadership terms and the same priorities for effective leadership results. The purpose of this blog is to clarify the definition of an engaged leader and provide a framework for everyone to improve their skills as leaders. How many skills do you need to be a successful leader? There are three categories of skills we all need.
Let’s first agree on the definition of an engaged leader. An engaged leader is one who is able to garner positive emotional commitment from employees with whom he/she works such that they are not only willing to follow this leader but they are willing to exert additional discretionary time and effort in their work.
I believe there are three categories of skills an engaged leader needs to continuously develop to deal with the speed of change and the challenges that change produces. I believe these challenges exist regardless of the size of the organization and or the industry within which they operate. Obviously some industries are more impacted than others but we are all required to adapt to a rapidly shifting and chaotic economic environment.
The three categories are:
1. The ability to understand and manage the key elements that create an environment of optimum engagement
2. The ability to understand, develop, and manage the quality of interpersonal interactions
3. The ability to understand, develop, and manage the quality of system interactions
The ability to understand and manage an environment of optimum engagement
One may be a great golfer but if he/she finds themselves on a tennis court it makes things much more difficult. Great leaders recognize that the interaction between the environment and the employees is an important factor in the performance of an organization and the performance of the individual contributor. In fact, we can’t separate the performance of an individual from the context within which the performance occurred.
We must provide the most effective environment for to take advantage of the best talent. An effective leader appreciates the need for preparing the soil before he/she can expect seeds to grow and the plant to produce fruit.
I believe there are five key elements that must be clarified and continuously communicated to create the optimum environment. These include all the usual suspects of vision, mission, values and strategic branding. There is one final element that is critical and not often identified by the leadership pundits. It often goes over looked. It is often just assumed, or at least unspoken, and yet it contributes to performance as much as the other four (if not more). I am talking about management theory.
Management theory refers to how leaders think about problems and people. For 16 years I have asked my clients in my leadership seminars to tell me what management theory they use to make decisions and to solve problems. They rarely if ever are able to articulate an answer. Why is that? It is because we rarely question the paradigm within which we have been immersed our entire lives. This is a bit disconcerting because the most important element of the management theory must include systems thinking.
Appreciating how a social system works and how a social system must be managed is an absolute essential ability for successful leadership results. I believe the most successful systems thinking model is the one put forth by Dr. W. Edwards Deming. It is called the Theory of Profound Knowledge. His theory includes four parts which all work together cooperatively to provide the most effective method of overcoming challenges, adapting to change, managing customer expectations, and developing employee engagement.
The ability to understand, manage, and develop the quality of interpersonal interactions
We must be able to develop effective relationships with each other. Leaders must have trusting relationships in order to optimize influence with followers. The followers must be able to trust the leaders and effective interpersonal interactions play a critical role to nurture those relationships.
These are all the soft skills such as listening, treating others with respect, being professional, appreciating others’ viewpoints without criticism, communicating directly in a conflict, resolving conflict positively while avoiding unintended negative consequences, asking powerful questions, and being willing to tell the truth respectfully. These are the basic relationship building skills that help make it safe for everyone to consistently tell the truth. This category also includes the coaching skills we recognize as an important element in employee development.
We all heard that Steve Jobs did not have optimum skills in this area. How can he be so successful without these interpersonal skills? One explanation might be that he was able to utilize the other two categories very well. Furthermore, there is no way to measure how well Jobs could have done if he had regularly practiced this skill as well.
The ability to understand, manage, and develop the quality of system interactions
When we appreciate systems thinking and when we understand how to study and improve a social system we can appreciate the need for improving the interactions that occur between the parts in a system. Furthermore, leaders who appreciate systems are able to understand how the quality of the interactions between the parts of the system becomes more important for success than improving the quality of the parts of the system.
I believe these are the three main categories of skills leaders need to develop including the ability to understand and manage the engaging environment, the ability to improve interpersonal interactions and the ability to improve system interactions. Take a personal assessment and decide which you need to develop? Which are your strengths and which can you develop. This data can help you formulate your strategy for being the leader you always wanted to be.

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