Are There Essential Leadership Skills?

President John F. Kennedy once said that “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each.”

Indeed, great leaders know that few people are born natural leaders. For most of us, the ascent to becoming a good leader is a pathway of trial and error, and, yes, failure.

Admiral William McRaven, a Navy Seal and the retired commander of all U.S. Special Operations Forces, told a graduating class at the University of Texas, “Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often.”

His commencement address has been viewed more than 10 million times and spawned the bestseller, “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life, and Maybe the World.”

The truth is, learning essential leadership skills is more of a long-distance journey; you simply can’t “cram” your way to becoming a great leader. And it seems every business leader has strong opinions on what are essential leadership skills. The founder of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, said, “I think leadership is valuing the time you spend with your people more than anything else you do.”

Nelson Mandela observed that how you overcome everyday obstacles is the difference in great leadership. Many times it’s as easy as having a positive mindset and being steadfast in the pursuit of your goals, no matter what they are: "Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do."

Being resilient writes Dr. Melanie Greenberg, is an essential skill. “Fall seven times, stand up eight,” she quotes a Japanese proverb in her article “Five Essential Skills for Leadership in the 21st Century” in “Psychology Today.”

“Most failures,” she says, “contains one or more lessons. Be willing to admit your contribution to the failure, and be ready to change your thinking about the issue.”

To be sure, leaders must be adept at navigating the unknown. And just how they do that was studied by the Wharton School. The results were reported in a timeless article from the “Harvard Business Review.” In “Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills” the authors identified six skills that could help you evolve your leadership capabilities.

6 Essential Leadership Skills

1. Anticipate

Many organizations and leaders aren’t good at foreseeing threats that aren’t central to the business. “Coors executives, famously, were late seeing the trend toward low-carb beers. Lego management missed the electronic revolution in toys and gaming,” says the study’s authors. However, “strategic leaders” are always vigilant (Semper vigilans); “honing their ability to anticipate by scanning the environment for signals of change."

2. Challenge

Good leaders often question the status quo by challenging their own and other team members’ assumptions. “Only after careful reflection and examining a problem through many lenses do they take decisive action. This requires patience, courage, and an open mind.”

3. Interpret

Good leaders don’t make quick, reflexive decisions. “You’ll need to recognize patterns, push through ambiguity, and seek new insights,” says the authors.

4. Decide

Sometimes, decision-makers don’t have all the necessary information to make decisions. Good leaders “Don’t shoot from the hip.” Instead, they follow a disciplined process “that balances rigor with speed.” Finally, "Strategic leaders must have the courage of their convictions—informed by a robust decision process.”

5. Align

Herb Kelleher, as noted earlier, loved spending time with his people. Great leaders realize they must be adept at sometimes bridging the gap between two opposing stakeholders. This requires lots of finesse, communication, and negotiating skills.

6. Learn

Yes, we are back to the value of learning. In fact, notes the authors, great leaders should be the focal point of organizational learning. “They [leaders] promote a culture of inquiry, and they search for the lessons in both successful and unsuccessful outcomes.”

In summary, create a culture in which inquiry is valued, and mistakes are merely learning opportunities.”

Looking for an avenue to learn new leadership skills? Join Vistage for a meeting or download our eBook on leadership development through peer groups.

Get your copy of "What Makes a Great Leader."


About the author

Gary Teagarden
Vistage Minnesota

Gary is an accomplished copywriter and B2B content marketing strategist. He’s written numerous articles and member stories for Vistage Minnesota since 2012.


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