What Are The Most Important Leadership Skills?

Posted On: November 18

This morning I was reading a fantastic article on The Practice of Leadership website which highlighted some new research from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), one of the most respected leadership development organizations in the world. The folks at CCL surveyed 2,200 leaders from 15 organizations, in three countries between 2006 and 2008 produced some extremely interesting findings. The research project was designed to answer the following three questions:

  1. What leadership skills and perspectives are critical for success now and in the future?
  2. How strong are current leaders in these critical skills and perspectives?
  3. How aligned is today’s leadership strength with what will be the most important skills and perspectives in the future?

The findings from this research project identified the following seven competencies as most critical for success, now and in the future:

  • Leading people: directing and motivating people.
  • Strategic planning: translating vision into realistic business strategies, including long-term objectives.
  • Managing change: using effective strategies to facilitate organizational change.
  • Inspiring commitment: recognizing and rewarding employees’ achievements.
  • Resourcefulness: working effectively with top management.
  • Doing whatever it takes: persevering under adverse conditions.
  • Being a quick learner: quickly learning new technical or business knowledge.

The interesting thing to note from the CCL research is that when these seven competencies were compared with a list of the current top ten leadership skills present in most companies today… “resourcefulness” was the only skill that appeared on both lists! All the other leadership skills rated as important for success in the new CCL study are not skills that leaders have effectively mastered today.

This came as no real surprise to me, since I had just gotten some similarly shocking results from a small research project I undertook. Earlier this year I was asked by one of the most prestigious Executive MBA programs in America to give a speech on the most important skills needed to be an effective “global leader” in the future. To prepare for the talk I sent a note to more than 40 friends and clients that are CEOs or senior leaders at multinational companies for their input on the topic. Although I received replies from nearly every corner of the globe, the answers were highly-correlated. By a wide margin, this group of extremely experienced leaders identified the following eight traits as the most essential:

· Ethics
· Honesty
· Transparency
· Integrity
· Humility
· Respect
· Flexibility
· Collaboration

Like the CCL study, I found this to be a fascinating list, because this is not at all what I heard just five years ago. Until very recently the major skills most companies focused on in their leaders were things like vision, strategic thinking, decisiveness, execution, drive, and accountability. And while these things still remain vastly important, it is obvious that the pendulum has begun to swing from a focus almost purely on maximizing ROI… to a focus on highly ethical and respectful leadership that still delivers the numbers.

I, for one, am extremely pleased to see this shift. I have worked in far too many organizations that drove their people into the ground in an all-out effort to “beat the street.” The quarter-to-quarter pressure to “make the numbers” was so overwhelming that people began to play fast and loose with the rules. The implosion of many of America’s once-famous and well-respected companies has been an exceedingly painful way to learn the lesson, but if the events of the past year drive a resurgence of the importance of ethics, integrity, honesty and respect in global leaders then perhaps there has been a silver lining to this economic storm. The question I ponder though is how do we keep these things at the forefront? How do we train the next generation of global leaders to focus on corporate values as strongly as they do profit margins?

To me the answer is to clearly show them that servant leadership, a positive corporate culture and a true dedication to sustainable business practices… are the ONLY road to sustainable competitive advantage and long-term profitability. It is my opinion that the number one factor in building a highly successful company is in attracting the absolute best people to your team and making sure that they are totally focused on continuous innovation and extreme customer focus. In other words: Talent x Culture = Success .

What does all of this mean to you? That finding, hiring and growing insanely talented people should be a strategic objective for your company. That corporate culture cannot be left to chance; it must be nurtured, shaped and supported strongly through the organization. And that a leadership style based on values, ethics and integrity will be the cornerstone for being a successful global leader of the future.

I hope you found this posting helpful – John

PS – my new book: Awesomely Simple just hit number 17 on the business bestseller list – thank you all so much for your help in getting it there!

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  1. I am excited about this post, John. Well done. However, I wonder how different the survey if instead of larger companies, the target was the smaller entrepreneurial one? I think they have always been there. Which is why probably everyone wants to be associated with the proven entrepreneur—they know something about building a company WITH a culture. Simply because they have had to.
    BTW, just finished up a mini book Put Entrepreneurs to Work in Your Company. Want to review it?

  2. Hello John,

    I just saw a retweet of today’s blog post and so glad I accessed it. I too, am pleased that value-based attributes are equally as, and in some cases more, important as tradtional executive skills. As you well know, your progression as a leader is highly dependent on your ability to get things done through and with others and the way you behave becomes the new measure by which you will succeed or self-sabotage.

  3. John:

    What I found interesting from the report was the following:

    “These data show that many leaders’ strengths are not in areas that are most important for success. Organizations report greater bench strength in areas of building and mending relationships, compassion and sensitivity, cultural adaptability, respecting individual differences, composure, and self-awareness. In organizations where this is the case, sufficient skill-level has been established in these areas and further large-scale efforts to boost these areas are unnecessary. These are mapped in the charts below as “over-investments.”

    Yet, respecting individual differences and self-awareness are two areas where we continually find people getting into trouble. More than likely, these are blind spots.

  4. Great Post John! Thanks again. Your words of wisdom help clarify what areas of leadership I need to work on. What strategies could someone practice to enhance each of these characteristics? I find that “resourcefulness” is definitely a top-tier characteristic, and is becoming more vital during such challenging times. Thanks all the information.

  5. We try to work on each of these skills that you have mentioned each and every day. We try our best to be transparent, honest and committed to all that we do and try to do the best job we can for our clients. We are passionate about Android and feel that we can truly help with the advancement of the platform. Strong leadership skills should help us with our goals. Thanks John!

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