The untethered skills of leadership

Is there a definable group of skills that leaders should possess? Most people who give this question any thought would say yes – it is easy to come up with a list of skills we identify with leadership. However, I find the idea increasingly problematic.

In essence, this is what I think troubles me about the idea of leadership skills:

  1. It encourages us to believe that leaders have a ‘toolbox’ of skills they carry with them from one context to the next. I think this gives somewhat of a misleading impression about how transferable leadership is.
  2. It suggests that leaders uniquely possess these skills and that they somehow form a ‘domain’ of leadership, whereas often the abilities are generally possessed by humans (leaders and non-leaders) in equal measure; they are not unique to leaders.
  3. It promotes the idea of a ‘skill’ as a single entity. When examined, these ‘skills’ often compose of a range of values, dispositions, beliefs, tendencies and knowledge. The term skill is therefore being used loosely, not to mean a specific procedural ability but to describe a broad collection of attributes. Such loose definitions make for sloppy thinking.

For the sake of brevity, I will take just one example to illustrate my struggle with how we think of leadership skills.

Empathy is often identified as an essential leadership skill. Few of us would argue that leaders who can empathise are desirable, and there is probably evidence to suggest that it makes them more effective. We should therefore include empathy on our list of qualities that we would like leaders to possess and develop.

Empathy is now on my list of ‘leadership skills’. Why is this problematic?

Firstly, we need to be clear as to what empathy is, and what we mean when we talk about it as a skill. All human beings have the tendency and ability to empathise to varying extents. Empathy has evolved because it serves a useful purpose. When we engage with other human beings we begin to form a theory of mind i.e. a mental model of what it might be like to be them. This is not a simple skill. We will watch for cues from facial expressions and body language to gauge emotional state, listen to the words they use and ask questions. Our minds are set to enquire and understand; if they are scared about the Saber-tooth tiger they have encountered then it is in our interest to be able to read their fear, even to feel it, so that we understand the danger.

These natural human tendencies are complemented by our understanding of the world. We are more likely to form an accurate theory of mind if we have relevant knowledge about the circumstances the other person is in. If they are depressed, it helps if we understand, or have even experienced, depression. If they have a medical condition, a knowledge of that condition and its typical effects will help us understand how they might be feeling. Our empathy will also depend on our pre-disposition. Our past experience and views about an individual will make us more or less likely to be inclined towards empathising with them. Also, our broader past experiences will have made us more or less likely to value empathy or to recognise when it is required.

Even this simple breakdown of the ‘skill’ of empathy illustrates that this ability is dependent on biologically-primary tendencies, personality, values, learnt behaviours, specific knowledge and context. How helpful is it to talk about empathy as a ‘skill’ that leaders should possess and develop? Empathy is not a single thing. Some aspects of it are probably not plastic – in other words not particularly open to development. Our tendency and ability to empathise will also vary significantly between contexts. Studies show that we empathise readily with people ‘like us’, but struggle to empathise with those far away, living lives somewhat different to our own. Empathy is not a fixed quality possessed by an individual, but instead arises from the particular circumstances and conditions. To portray empathy as a thing which can be acquired, developed and applied across contexts is thoroughly misleading.

When examined, it appears that empathy is not a ‘skill’ in any meaningful definition of the word. Also, empathy is not unique to leaders, it is highly context-dependent, and only aspects are open to development (and even then mostly the ‘knowledge’ aspect of it, not the ‘skill’).

These problems are not limited to this particular example. Consider other ‘leadership skills’ often cited; building trust, developing relationships, ethical decision making, modelling work-life balance, problem solving, or articulating a vision. All these abilities are undoubtedly beneficial for the function of leadership, but is it accurate or helpful to define these as leadership skills?

It is notable that clarity of thinking about skills improves dramatically when one assigns an object to the skill. For example, whom are we attempting to build trust with, or what is the ethical decision we are grappling with? This suggests that specificity and context are essential considerations. Separating the skill from the object causes it to float away like a helium balloon with its string cut.

Of course leaders need to be ‘skilled’, but attempting to define a range of leadership skills results in diminishing clarity about what leadership is. Vague notions of generic leadership skills are not helpful, and continuing to think in this way will not deepen our understanding of leadership.

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