Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

The 4 Leadership Skills That Really Matter

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The fundamental techniques that drive your success never change. Think about how many free throws Michael Jordan must have practiced, or how many jabs Mike Tyson threw. Top athletes like them never stop practicing their basic building blocks even after rising to the top of the professional ranks. So why do people believe leaders at different levels need to focus and develop different core skills?

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, the CEO and the president of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, respectively, write in Harvard Business Review that in order to be successful, leaders—no matter at what level they are—should be practicing the same core skills that have driven them from the first day they entered the workforce.

Zenger and Folkman surveyed more than 300,000 CEOs, executives, and subordinates about what skills leaders need to be successful in their current position. Instead of finding different sets of skills for each level, they found “a remarkable consistency in the data about which skills were perceived as most important in all four levels of the organization we measured.”

The data showed that there are four core competencies for supervisors, middle managers, senior managers, and top executives:

  1. Inspires and motivates others
  2. Displays high integrity and honesty
  3. Solves problems and analyzes issues
  4. Drives for results

“This suggests to us that as people move up the organization, the fundamental skills they need will not dramatically change,” Zenger and Folkman write. “Still, our data further indicate, the relative importance of the...skills does change to some degree as people move up.”

There are also three skills whose importance depends on your level: communicates powerfully and prolifically, collaborates and promotes teamwork, and builds relationships. For example, “For senior management, communicating powerfully and prolifically moves to the number two spot [despite being the fifth-most important of the skills overall],” the researchers write. Additionally, “Only for top executives does a new competency enter the mix, as the ability to develop a strategic perspective (which had been moving steadily up the lower ranks) moves into the number five position.”

The lesson? Be a leader at every level and hone the skills you know you’ll need to be the top dog.

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