Elevating Leadership Series: Skills-Based Leadership

Greetings leaders! In my entry about trait-based leadership, I asked: Are leaders born or made? And, I suggested that trait-based leadership supported both narratives whereby the born-scenario suggests that leaders are predestined to lead, and the made-scenario suggests leaders are born without the traits necessary for leadership and must acquire them. Skills-based leadership doesn’t agree with the trait-based flavor. Skills-based leadership assumes that potential leaders are born with only rudimentary skills to lead and must be made suitable for leadership through education, experience, and practice. It is to the skills-based leadership school of thought to which I subscribe.

Here’s the agenda for our discussion: first, we’ll knock out the smart-guy stuff by discussing the background of skills-based leadership; second, we’ll discuss the relevance of skills-based leadership; and, finally, we’ll finish up by discussing how to develop skills.


Historically, leadership has been viewed from the trait perspective, assuming that it was based solely on attributes. Then, in 1955, Robert Katz released an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Skills of an Effective Administrator” and completely changed the landscape. Instead of being born with the traits to lead, advocated by the likes of classic scholars such as Aristotle and Sun Tzu, an individual could become a leader by acquiring the necessary skills. The skills approach to leadership, therefore, is descriptive. It describes how leadership works more so than prescribing how to lead. There are several models of skills-based leadership, but I’m going to discuss two: Katz’s three-skill approach and the four-skills approach pioneered by Michael Mumford and Stephen Zaccaro. While description seems less actionable than prescription, skills-based leadership provides a roadmap to leader development. Individual organizations can delineate what skills are necessary for effective leadership inside respective organizations and develop those skills within their managers or recruit talent with the appropriate skills.

Katz categorizes skills as technical, human, and conceptual. Technical skills encompass capabilities associated with job-specific competencies and specializations (i.e., drawing blood in phlebotomy, torquing bolts onto an aircraft panel in aircraft maintenance, etc.). Human skills encompass the skills involved in interacting and influencing other people. And, conceptual skills are the strategic competencies associated with goal-setting, planning, and executing. Katz’s model further suggests that a manager’s position in the leadership echelon will determine how much energy one should dedicate to each skill set. For lower echelon managers, more focus will go into technical and human skills, middle echelon managers will have to focus on all three skill sets, and upper echelon managers will focus mostly on human and conceptual.

A half of a century later, in a drastically changing professional environment, Mumford and Zaccaro assert that leadership is best described by cognitive skills, interpersonal skills, business skills, and strategic skills. The four-skills approach suggests that “leadership outcomes are the direct result of a leader’s competencies in problem-solving skills, social judgment skills and knowledge. Each of these competencies includes a large repertoire of abilities, and each can be learned and developed” (Northouse, 2016, p. 91). Thus, cognitive skills cover mental capabilities and expertise; interpersonal skills encapsulates the human skills of three-skills approach; business skills covers the professional abilities of a leader; and, strategic skills are a mix of the conceptual and technical skills of the three-skills approach. Mumford and Zaccaro, in their breakdown of leadership skills, assert that the categories are impressed upon many different factors and disciplines. Inasmuch, a leader with a psychology background may have more developed interpersonal skills than a leader who does not. Meanwhile, a leader born with a naturally magnetic charisma may exhibit more talent in business skills than someone born without the same charisma. However, a leader can increase his or her proficiency with the appropriate learning.


The days of waiting for the chosen-one to walk through the doors of your enterprise to apply for a job are long over…if those days were ever a thing. But, while most enterprises are using ouija boards and black magic in the office to beg the ancient spirits of commerce to send suitable managerial applicants, progressive enterprises develop their managers. Progressive enterprises understand that traits can’t be controlled because they can’t be forecasted. Skills, on the other hand, can be. What can be forecasted, can be planned for.

The three-skills and four-skills approaches are contextual and provide a wide view of leadership. It’s the components of the skills, though, that really matter to us in a practical sense. Each skill is a category that encompasses capabilities, called competencies, which leaders leverage in organizations. What that means is we know what we want our managers to ‘look’ like. In the 21st century professional environment, leaders need to either recruit managers with the appropriate skills or deliver the appropriate skills to their managers. Unlike traits, skills can be developed.


Managers and leaders must have certain competencies and a certain level of efficacy to perform to standard. If any manager or leader lacks efficacy in any competency, the deficiency manifests as substandard performance. That’s a problem. But, the problem is easily solved: simply deliver the right training to the managers and give them a realistic amount of time to improve. It really is that simple since skills-based leadership is a roadmap. It provides a blueprint and pathway to systematically improve leaders and, ultimately, improving the enterprises in which they work as a byproduct. If you need managers who can handle finances better, train their financial management. If you need managers who lead a team better, train their leadership skills. Got a manager who doesn’t communicate well? Develop their communication. By targeting skills, we remain in control of the growth of leaders in a way that traits cannot fulfill. Decide what skills you need and recruit or train those skills. By the way, don’t make the mistake of only focusing on the technical and business skills of your managers; that will result in disproportionate leadership skills which can have torturous effects on your enterprise.


I’m going to offer a big tip here: the four most crucial skills that managers need are coaching, conflict management, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. Coaching and conflict management are jointly held by Katz’s human and conceptual skills also jointly held by Mumford’s and Zaccaro’s interpersonal and strategic skills. Critical thinking is held under conceptual skills and cognitive and strategic skills. And, emotional intelligence is held exclusively under the human skills and interpersonal skills. All four need constant development, too. If you and your managers lack them, you’re going to spin your wheels. Eventually, you’re going to become frustrated, cynical, and bitter.

Does your enterprise have a skills-based model for your leaders? How do you train those skills?

Next up: We’re going to discuss focus as it relates to leadership. After that, we going to shift gears from the academic discussion of leadership to a practical discussion of skills-based leadership in the Quick Service Restaurant industry. Expect a deep-dive into competencies after that.

Keep leading!


Mumford, M. D., Zaccaro, S. J., Connelly, M. S., & Marks, M. A. (2000). Leadership skills: Conclusions and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(1), 155–170.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership, theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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