Monday, April 26, 2010

What kind of leadership skills are we talking about?

These days there sure is a lot of focus on developing leadership skills. But what kind of skills are leadership skills? Skills are simply a capacity to do something well. It is an action one takes that accomplishes something. Identifying leadership skills depends on one's understanding of leadership.

If leadership is understood as the exercise of authority, getting others to do what "the leader" wants, then these skills will be different from the skills derived from an understanding of leadership that is more systemic and influence based.

As a practitioner and educator in leadership, I have come to make sense of leadership in terms of various world-views. In other words, different leadership theories and perspectives reflect different world-views people hold. World-views are a dimension of human consciousness and function as large cognitive structures which people, individually and collectively, make sense of the world and guide their actions in it.

Leadership theories that are individualistic, authority-based, focused on quantifiable, predetermined results, which followed from predetermined organizational objectives fit into a particular world-view. Joseph Rost (1991) refers to this as an industrial paradigm of leadership and Marion and Uhl-Bien (2007) refer to this perspective of leadership in terms of a bureaucratic paradigm of leadership.

Leadership theories that are more systemic and collaborative in nature, are more influence and relationship based, focused more on making progress in the direction of mutually derived purposes, while responsive to the dynamic and complex nature of organizational life, are part of a different world-view. Referred to by Rost (1991) as a post-industrial paradigm of leadership and by Marion and Uhl-Bien (2007) as a complexity paradigm of leadership, this world-view tends to be more a more complex world-view.

These two world-views outlined are not mutually exclusive, the more complex includes yet transcends, the less complex. An understanding and practice in a more complex world-view of leadership allow one to flex into less complex one when needed.

Back to leadership skills, it follows that different world-views of leadership require different kinds of leadership skills. So what do you think these are? What kind of skills are part of the industrial or bureaucratic paradigm, and which are needed for a post-industrial or complexity paradigm?



  1. Thanks, Ken, for another thought-provoking post. Would you be willing to "ground"/"land the learning" of the theories you describe in the last paragraph by linking them to some real-life organizational examples? For example, is there a good example (or perhaps one-in-progress ; ) ) of an organization leveraging a complexity paradigm? Industrial paradigm, etc.? If not a specific organization, perhaps a sector/industry?

    It would help me, and perhaps others, to reflect on your "skills" question if I could get a better handle on some possible contexts.

    Thanks for all your wisdom, here and beyond.
    - Lucie

  2. Great suggestion to ground my theoretical musings in a specific case. Here is an example from some recent work with an executive management team. Promoting better accountability among managers and life staff surfaced as an issue. There were differences in perspective among team members on how to identify and implement measures of accountability. One perspective was any deviation from the policy should be confronted and consequences given. Another perspectives was that policies should be used as guidelines and that people should have some discretion in how the policy should be followed and encouraged to track the implications of their actions and to correct it accordingly. In my mind, the first perspective mentioned is reflective of a bureaucratic paradigm, and the second a complexity paradigm.

    Accountability from within a complexity paradigm require skills in navigating ambiguity, being discerning and critically reflective, to name a few, are required. Accountability from within a bureaucratic paradigm requires skills in comprehension, communication, compliance, and responsibility. The former are important and serve as the platform from which the latter can be developed. But each of these sets of skills are different in kind and complexity.

  3. Hi Ken,
    Skills for leaders that are grounded in the post-industrial paradigm include the ability to recognize the value of and actively encourage the sharing of diverse perspectives. Collaborative practices are critical for leaders to be successful in increasingly distributed working environments.

  4. Thanks, Ken, and Ginger. FWIW, I agree totally with Ginger; in the international arena, I believe we not only need to value and explore diverse perspectives but actually leverage them. When I work with organizations to set up an overseas operation, I encourage them to set up bi-directional channels from the start so that we at HQ learn from the field and leverage those learnings which, BTW, generally result in increased Sales in those markets. It's all too easy for the top-->down mentality to become inside-->out/HQ->Field only mindset (which means we've only turned a restricted scenario on its side, not resolved/expanded it). Perhaps I need to introduce a layer of post-industrial paradigm theory, in addition to Best Practices International Marketing when I'm in these engagements....good to consider...

    Ken, I really appreciate this rich example and would like to think more about your original question as I sit with it. This illustrative case is so helpful; regrettably it's easier for me to relate to your first scenario, though I completely see why the skills you suggest are required for dealing with/leveraging a complexity paradigm. - I'm sensing there may be a need for a set of "bridging" skills, to begin to evolve from #1 without having to make a quantum leap (for many) to #2...?

    Ginger, do you have a sense of which (Leadership) skills need to be developed to foster the "collaborative practices" you mention? Do you think there's a fundamental set of "core competencies" here, or does it vary by context/industry/company?

    Many thanks for a rich discussion - time to go be collaborative and distributed (networking event)! Best wishes to all!
    - Lucie

  5. Hi Ginger,

    In your comment on skills in a post-industrial paradigm your raise an important point about the need for different paradigms of leadership, as well as the skills that go with it, namely that today's working environments are quite complex and dynamic.

    "Collaborative practices are critical for leaders to be successful in increasingly distributed working environments." I would imagine you have lots of examples of this in play. I would love it if you shared one or two.

  6. Lucie, you make a very good point " I'm sensing there may be a need for a set of "bridging" skills, to begin to evolve from #1 without having to make a quantum leap (for many) to #2...?" This is very key. That is how I understand leadership development, paying attention to the developmental pathways needed for individuals and teams to develop the different kinds of skills needed. That is why I like the Hall Tonna Values map and system as part of the leadership development process, for it identifies skills along pathways of less to more complexity as people move through different stages of development.

  7. An example of a collaborative practice is widening discussions to a deeper level within an organization. One tactic would be to actively ask for input in a way that invites discussion and sharing. In a conference call setting, it's the difference between asking the audience during a presentation "are there any questions?" vs. "What could some of the impacts be if we make this change?"

  8. Thanks, Ginger - I know you responded to Ken, so I hope you won't mind if I offer appreciation as well. ; ) Your practical invitation to dialog seems so useful to me (as one who also collaborates often on conference calls - special challenges).

    I used to work for a large IT giant that pushed us all really hard but I'm grateful they really taught us how to collaborate in ways to which you allude; but it was a "swim or sink" mode as opposed to a conscious development path/training. -Linking your comment back to Ken's skills question, I wonder what skills/mindsets could be developed so that folks like me don't have to have our backs against the wall before we go there...?! I'm grateful I did, but now find myself in a small group with many different ideas about what collaboration, for example, means and it certainly leads to some tough moments. Per Ken's reference, maybe I can suggest we use the Hall Tonna definition/Ph 3 placement of collaboration as a common point of reference. Will be interesting to try...Thanks, Ginger(+Ken)!

  9. Hi Lucie,
    I think there is some alignment in terms of values development that supports active collaboration. If we are lower in the heirarchy in terms of our needs for safety/security are not being met (job security for example) that would correlate with behaviors that are more closed, controlled, directive as opposed to living in a high trust environment where your needs are being met, you might feel more secure in your position to share an be a proactive influencer of others.

  10. Thanks, Ginger - my experience, as well as much of the literature, suggests your conclusion to be 100% correct. In terms of Ken's "skills" framing, perhaps helping people feel secure to collaborate in authentic ways (e.g., supportive but not necessarily implying someone's job is safe unless is categorically is) might be a new kind of "soft" skill...? Perhaps that's why Collab only shows up in the Hall Tonna work in Phase 3, after basic needs have been met (somewhat).

    To your remarks, it sounds like garnering trust might be a way to name something of a skill that generates a sense of security - I find it interesting, then, that the hot rise of collaboration in the business sectors also coincides with an acknowledged, pervasive erosion of trust across so many sectors and areas (e.g., Wall Street)...sounds like we're circling back to the Values work, per Ken's initial assertion...

    I attended a conference today where a speaker described collaboration as "accelerated karma" - no doubt about it: it's definitely a contact sport! This makes your insights about the more subtle aspects all the more meaningful to me, Ginger. Thank you!

  11. Thanks Ken,

    Would you consider placing paradigms of leadership in a scale of strength levels? Or are they all on an equal level?

    What do you call a paradigm of leadership that is created and/or led by a mere person?

  12. Ken, Ginger, and Lucie,

    I was just thinking of the youngest leader I know who I believe created a paradigm of leadership at the age of three...little Shirley Temple. Do you not agree? Look at her biography: She helped our nation get back on our feet from the great depression and filled countless homes with joy. Would you say this is a "social paradigm of leadership"? I don't know what to call it, but I have never seen such a leader in history at such a young age. Look in her biography on how she later became a U.S. Ambassador for two different countries and her other administrative roles in this country that I was never taught in history.