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The Top 10 Leadership Competencies

What are the most important leadership skills? How many do you possess?

Managers, aspiring managers, and top-level leaders are all concerned with developing the competencies they need to become more effective leaders. More than 100 years of leadership research has outlined the successful skills and abilities that are associated with leadership effectiveness. Here are my top 10, derived from our own research and the broader research literature.

1. Social Intelligence (SI). This is not only one of the best predictors of effective leadership, but it is poorly understood and under-researched. Social intelligence is quite broad, but can best be seen in terms of understanding of social situations and dynamics, and ability to operate effectively in a variety of social situations. Our research suggests that social intelligence, which we define as a constellation of social performance, sensitivity to social situations, and role-playing skill are critically important for effective leadership.

How to develop SI? Expose yourself to different people, different social situations, and work to develop your social perceptiveness and ability to engage others in conversation. More on this here.

2. Interpersonal Skills. Interpersonal skills could be seen as a subset of social intelligence, but these are the more relationship-oriented aspects of social effectiveness. We often talk about the “soft skills” of the leader, and these are best represented by interpersonal skills.

How to develop interpersonal skills? Become an active listener, work on conversational and speaking skills, (join toastmasters; networking groups), and work on your personal relationships with friends, relatives, and your significant other. These skills will generalize to workplace relationships. More on soft skills here.

3. Emotional Skills/Intelligence (EI). A complement to social intelligence, emotional intelligence is our ability to communicate at the emotional level, understand emotions and emotional situations, and be in tune with our own emotions. These are particularly related to leadership “charisma.”

How to develop EI? Practice “reading” others’ nonverbal cues, particularly cues of emotion. Learn to regulate and control your emotions and your emotional outbursts. Practice expressing feelings and become an effective emotional “actor” – learning how to express emotions appropriately. More on emotional communication here.

4. Prudence. Prudence is one of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues. A synonym is “wisdom,” but it comes from being able to see others’ perspectives and through being open to and considering others’ points of view.

How to develop prudence? Listen to others. Work to be more open and more broad-minded. Learn to ask for others’ opinions and consider them as you choose a course of action.

5. Courage. A second cardinal virtue is “Fortitude,” or courage. This is having the courage to take calculated risks and the courage to: (a) stand up for what you believe; (b) do the right thing.

How to develop courage? This takes some effort but is rooted in developing and holding onto strong personal values. If you truly value something or someone you will have the courage to stand by your principles (and your people). More on leader virtues here.

6. Conflict Management. This is a “higher order” interpersonal skill that involves helping colleagues to avoid or resolve interpersonal conflicts. Leaders are often called upon to adjudicate when members are in conflict, but it also involves having the ability to either avoid or resolve your own conflict situations.

How to develop conflict management skills: There are courses and workshops available to help you understand and learn conflict management strategies. A big part of conflict management is helping conflicting parties to collaborate (a win-win outcome) or to compromise (each party needs to be flexible and give up something).

7. Decision-Making. One of the core competencies for leaders is the ability to make good decisions or lead a good decision-making process. There are better and worse ways to make decisions, and a good leader understands when to make a decision, when to consult subordinates or peers and bring them into the decision-making process, and when it’s time to step back and let others decide.

How to develop decision-making skills: Experience and studying when decisions have gone wrong and gone right is the best way to hone these skills. We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

8. Political Skills. Let’s face it. Every group or organization is, at its core, full of politicking. People will try to bend rules, gain allies, push their personal agenda, etc., in order to try to get ahead. An effective leader is a good political player, who knows how the game is played but can also manage political behavior so that it does not lead to group or organizational dysfunction.

How to develop political skills: Similar to many of the more highly-developed leadership competencies, political skills are learned through experience and learning about people and social dynamics.

9. Influence Skills. At its core, leadership is about influencing others, so a great leader is a master of social influence, and able to wield power effectively and fairly. Calling on your interpersonal ("soft") skills can make you much more influential in a leadership role.

How to develop influence skills: Training in debate helps with making reasoned, well-thought-out arguments. Seeing things from another's perspective can help you understand what they want from a negotiation, and allows you to focus on win-win situations.

10. Area Expertise/Competence. Many people might list this first, but in today’s world, knowledge of all aspects of the job is not as important as it used to be. In high-tech industries, or creative firms, team members may have more relevant knowledge and expertise than leaders. Still, it is important that leaders develop their expertise in the particular situation, organization, or industry in which they lead.

How to develop area expertise: Like all of these competencies, development is a lifelong process. Effective leaders gain expertise and competence and try to learn as much as they can about their product, their organization, and their team members. Study the organization. Study competitors. Continue your education.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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