Leaders past, present, and future are individuals who have faced opportunities and obstacles; and triumphed in the face of these circumstances. Some of these leaders succeeded because they were able to jump over the hurdles in their path by deploying a set of skills that have been tried and true. Great Leaders, however, became triumphant by building new skills and evolving themselves to meet the challenges and opportunities in their midst. This reflects the most fundamental aspects of leadership development – that great leaders observe and adapt. Great leadership requires more than a fixed set of skills, abilities, and traits. Today, underlying all of the requirements of being and staying a great leader is agility – flexible, being able to move and change. Think bamboo in hurricane vs. oak tree.
What is a Modern Leader? The modern leader is a Leader who never stops learning. She knows that her skills that she has depended on in the past are not necessarily going to be the ones that take her into the future. The Modern Leader, rises up to the challenge of a dynamic and ever-changing landscape which requires looking ahead, and consistently reflecting on how and what they need to do to stay on top of their game to avoid becoming a dinosaur.
In today’s world, becoming and staying a Modern Leader takes effort. Not continually growing and stretching yourself leads to a lack of innovation, stagnation, and obsolescence. There are significant risks to you as a leader if you assume what you currently do well today will still work tomorrow. At different stages you need various skills; skills that are strengths at one point are no longer crucial at another. Research by Eichinger and Lombardo concluded that aspiring leaders who were modest, open to growth, change, and eager for continual development were more likely to be promoted than those who had overly high esteem of their current abilities.
The source for ongoing leadership development does not come from focusing on what you already naturally do well. Becoming a Modern Leader comes from tapping into and realizing your Latent or Middle skills. Middle skills are the majority of skills that you possess outside your default strengths that with focus and practice, become new pillars of your success. Optimizing the right Middle skills at the right time leads to ongoing leadership growth. The very foundation of leadership development and coaching is centered on identifying and developing Middle skills on a continual basis.
Companies around the world spend tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop individual leaders. The most effective method for developing leadership skills is through executive coaching. The most effective executive coaching begins with an understanding of the person’s current state – traditionally through a 360-degree assessment that incorporates feedback from the important people in a leader’s professional life including boss, peers, direct reports, and customers.
From the assessment, ranking of specific skills, competencies, or behaviors are listed. The top scoring items (i.e., the top 15-20%) are considered a person’s strengths, or what we call one’s Default Skills. These are skills that we tend to be good at naturally and default to using because it comes easy. The lower scoring items (i.e., the bottom 15-20%) are what we call Deficient Skills. These skills are often mistakenly identified as key development opportunities. At first pass, it makes sense that the lowest scoring items are assumed to be glaring opportunities for change. In between go-to Default Skills and Deficient Skills lay middle scoring items (60%-70%). It is these middle skills that present the greatest opportunity for continual leadership develop. They are often overlooked because our tendency to go to the extremes, but upon closer examination you start to see that to quickly transform latent skills into new strengths does not require as big an investment compared to the Deficient Skills. This helps leaders quickly add more skills into the strengths bucket. Though they may not be natural talents or gifts, they can quickly become learned skills that serve to make the leader even more successful.
Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell are principles at Skyline Group International a Human Capital Solutions company. They have authored three books on the topic of employee and leadership performance and are also authors of the forthcoming Maximizing Your Middle: Evolve Your Latent Skills, Attain Your Goals, and Become a Great Leader (working title) published by Barrett-Koehler Spring 2015.