The skills approach to leadership: lecture script

Do you believe that leaders are born, or that leaders can be trained?

This is one of the most pertinent issues in leadership today.  Do we choose our leaders based on how they make us feel (ie: charismatic leaders, such as President Obama) or based on their abilities as leaders, even if they are dull and not inspiring?


The skills approach to leadership claims that leaders can be trained and developed, and need only a few traits in order to grow and create results.  There are two central parts to the skills approach, which can be summed up in the Three Skills Approach and in the Five Capabilities.  These two approaches are not competitive but rather synergistic, as the Three Skills Approach outlines the kinds of skills a leader needs and the Five Capabilities explains how those skills operate and showcase on the battlefield of an organization.


The Three Skills are technical skills, conceptual skills, and human skills.  Think of technical skills as the know-how and the details of a particular kind of job, with human skills being people skills (or the abilities to communicate effectively with those you work for you), and finally conceptual skills being abilities aligned with strategy, visionary thinking, and seeing the Big Picture.


The Five capabilities begin with competencies, which are basic measures of effective performance, or how well leaders perform their skills in the organization.  In other words, competencies are the leaders aptitudes for generating results.


Individual attributes are trait-like and at first glance seem more aligned with behavioral tendencies, but unlike the trait approach to leadership which seeks out leaders based on whether they have particular attributes, individual attributes in the skills approach to leadership deal with intellectual abilities and how well the leader processes information, which unlike traits, is actually something that can be trained through practice, training, or education.


Leadership outcomes are essentially the limits of acceptable probability, which in layman’s terms deals with the social visibility the leader showcases based on how well he performs the functions of his duties; again, at first glance the outcome of a decision may seem like it is tied with the leader’s instrinsic qualities, but the skills approach argues that the outcome is based on how well the leadership performs, which is something can be improved over-time.  Performance is not a trait but a skill.


Career experiences are the skills gained in praxis; in other words, over-time the skills of a leader will grow.  So breaking down which skills are growing and in which situations will help the leader define how they are progressing upwards and help him understand what needs to improve.


Finally, environmental influences factor in heavily for the skills approach, as they are essentially contextual abilities such as flexibility and adaptability in different situations.  Sometimes these situations can be varying organizational or national cultures, while other times these situations can be reactionary skills; in other words, how well a leader knows a particular culture and how to interact with it, or the speed and efficacy a leader has in reacting to difficult situations.


I feel it is necessary to give you some background information on these two models of skill-based leadership.  The Three Skills were developed by Robert Katz in 1955 (who is still alive today, running a leadership consultancy out of Portola Valley, California) in an article he wrote entitled, “Skills of an Effective Administator.”  During the course of his life, he was a professor at Dartmouth, Harvard, and Stanford University.  He was the City Planning Commisioner of Portola Valley, the Director of the United States National Resources, Incorporated, as well as a Commisioner of Yosemite National Park.  Most of his work over the course of his life dealt with the training of public officials in positions of the United States government, post World War II.  His understanding of effective leadership cannot be dismissed from the system of government in which he worked, which was essentially a reformed British parliamentary system inspired by the French revolutionary ideals of a standard civil code, people’s representation, and military effectiveness, four ideals which are in truth, not common to many governments and cultures around the world.

The authors of the Five capabilities adds even more color to this very interesting picture.   Michael Mumford was and perhaps is the principal investigator of million dollar grants to the Department of Defense, as well as being the editor of Leadership Quarterly.  Stephen Zaccaro is one of the editors of the Journal of Military Psychology, as well as a professor at George Mason University, a university well-known to producing military scholars.  Edwin Fleishman was in the Navy and the Air Force for 12 years as a director of many psychological research labs, before becoming a full professor at George Mason University, and Thomas Jacobs is a professor at the National Defense University and the US Army Institute.

Military science and procedures for training officials and representatives of the United States government is therefore, a huge influence on the skills approach, and must be taken into consideration when thinking about how to move the skills approach across cultures.


What are the implications of these facts upon the skills approach, and how can we evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the skills approach as a methodology leaders can incorporate into their lives and their organizations?

Firstly, let’s talk about some weaknesses.  The skills approach is severely lacking in intentionality. No where in the skills approach is there a question of why the leader wants power, and this is for good reason.  Government officials are trained to do a job, not to care necessarily about the implications of their work, and soldiers are trained to be obedient even if they disagree with the attitudes of their superiors.  So the skills approach lacks that foundational ethic of why the leader would even seek power, and assumes that everyone can learn to be a leader, even if they don’t want to be.

Secondly, the skills approach has an over-focus on intellectualism, without accountability.  What do I mean by this?  Leaders often make bad decisions but those bad decisions may be ignored because the result was a success.  The skills approach does not take into account the ethical implications of bad decisions if the end result was successful.

This means that fundamentally, the skills approach is positivist and slightly utilitarian.  Utilitarian leadership is the opposite of transformational leadership, because it assumes that people don’t necessarily have to grow, but only need to perform their duties for the benefits of others, creating a strange paradox within the skills approach that seems to encourage skill-building while ignoring heart-building.

Positively, the skills approach is progressive, focused on institutional growth and creating a stronger systematic approach to defining and creating leaders where there is only desert.  This makes the skills approach ideal for organizations suffering from the insidious disease of leadership succession.  Furthermore, the skills approach offers a great theoretical framework for building training programs, whether your organization is training managers or CEOs.  And finally, the malleability within the skills approach is such that even people without any training can become great leaders, as long as they are put into a program that takes them step-by-step and focuses on the long-term rather than the short-term.

The skills approach to leadership is for the long haul; is it not a simple solution, but an elegant system which over-time, slowly builds confidence and skills and creates effective, intelligent, and results-driven leaders.