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In What One Competency Area Should Leaders Be Developed or Trained?

In What One Competency Area Should Leaders Be Developed or Trained?

Just over a month ago we put up a question on the LinkedIn website as follows:

“Although the possible competencies to target are many (communication skills, critical thinking ability, emotional intelligence, capacity to manage change etc), if you had the budget to develop leaders in only one competency to make the greatest difference or impact, which one would it be?”

This was posted on the Australian Human Resources Institute Group page, a group which at the time had over 15,400 members. In around 4 weeks we received 30 responses to the question from different people and we thought we would summarize in this article what was very interesting and thoughtful input.

Before we look at a few of the particular postings, what were the overall results in terms of the “one competency that people would invest in developing the most”?

There were two competencies that vied for the winner:

  • Communication
  • Coaching

Technically, the ability to coach others had the most mentions. However, people use slightly different terms for communication skills and if “the ability to influence or persuade others” is included, then communication comes out on top.

At one level down from these two competencies (and mentioned three to four times) are three others:

  • Innovation/Creativity
  • Managing under-performance” (or performance correction as it was also called)
  • People motivation/Empowerment ability

Mentioned at least twice at the next level were several other competencies including:

  • Creating Vision
  • “Collaboration skills
  • “Developing others
  • Holding Crucial conversations
  • Reflection skills
  • “Taking risks
  • “Listening ability
  • Resilience
  • Ethical thinking ability
  • “The ability to deal with cognitive complexity

There were many other competencies that were mentioned only once, but for completeness they are listed in the table below:

Advocacy skills Optimism / happiness Authenticity
Stimulating others intellectually Service focus / awareness Change management ability
Dealing with ambiguity Managing by walking around Strategic ability
Managerial courage Results orientation Self-awareness
Presentation skills Delegation skills Empathy ability

Clearly, many of these competencies overlap with one another and as many people pointed out, some are “foundational” and will lead to the deployment of others if well honed.

Although, all comments can be found at the LinkedIn website, the following fifteen represent a few of the inputs made (both in full and excerpted with apologies to others who made good but similar points):

“For me it would be communication skills- the ability to communicate effectively to a variety of audiences is critical to engaging with people. Engaging with people through sharing and communicating information, ideas and concepts should assist in fostering innovation and creativity. I must say that trying to narrow the focus to one area is an interesting challenge as so many facets of leadership knowledge, skills and abilities interplay to create business success.” – Laurell McLean

“Coaching skills, without a doubt. I see too many managers who get promoted and take their work with them because they can’t effectively coach others to take over their old tasks. By developing (and using!) coaching skills they can develop their staff and free their own time to do the management/leadership work they are being paid to do.” – Jason Howden

“I think the answer really depends on a number of aspects. Firstly, the organisation (the context / environment in which the leader is working), secondly, the leader themselves (what is it they need to develop to improve their leadership) and finally the values and strategy (what is the business strategy aiming to achieve and what leadership competencies are congruent with the values of the organisation). Take all these things into account and you should have a well informed answer!”  – Christie Fullarton

“In a world (relational economy) where collaboration is relied upon for organisational success, perhaps collaboration as a competency – as stated, this is a competency more broadly in context, as it encompasses the elements (some already mentioned) of communication, connection, trust, empowerment (power with), negotiation (persuasion/influencing- aligning self interests with collective interests), conflict management etc), relating, development of common goals etc. I would go one step further to suggest that collaboration should be developed as a core organisational competency, to develop all of the leaders within the organisation (not just the formal/nominal leaders at the top) – whether at the centre and periphery of the organisation.” – Peter Spence

“I would suggest that your greatest return on investment would be in developing a leader’s ability to; stimulate others intellectually and effectively manage/correct subordinates performance.” – Sebastien Berlioz

“We need organisational leaders who step out of their comfort zone; to take personal risks. It’s said that learning only occurs on the edge of comfort. I believe the same is said for all forms of development and growth.” – Stephen Walker

“My experience leads me to believe that the answer to this question very much depends on the maturity of the individual, organisation and market. However, if there is one area I see a consistent weakness in with the clients we work with it is their inability to hold ‘crucial conversations’ or undertake ‘crucial confrontations’” – James Michael

“I think that effective leaders need to have cognitive complexity – the ability to cognitively deal with seemingly paradoxical thoughts or ideas. This will enable them to then deliver behavioural complexity – the ability to deliver seemingly paradoxical behaviours.” – Tricia Vilkinas

“You must have the ability to hold ‘crucial conversations’ and ‘crucial confrontation’” – Kevin Chalklin

“If I was to name the one which I believe is most crucial, it would be managing vision and purpose. The others would be; dealing with ambiguity, innovation management, strategic agility, managerial courage, drive for results, motivating others and developing direct reports and others.” – Katy Jones

“COACHING – because with coaching comes communication skills, the ability to develop and grow their people and listening skills which all assist in showing great Leadership!” – Paula Jones-Hunt

“Self-Awareness- having the ability to understand the impact you’re having on others will lead to empathy and understanding of other people’s points of view and inevitably develop great relationships.. ….or what about Resilience? Imagine if the world was populated by resilient leaders that were able to have tough or confrontational conversations without fear of emotional reactions.” – Matt Connell

“I suggest, expanding thinking with cognitive development underlies and gives rise to all competencies like collaboration and communication, mentioned in this discussion.” – Grant Wattie

“Communication skills that include outstanding presentation skills – today’s teams require inspirational leadership to get them over the line.” – Sharon Ferrier

“Coaching Skills as it encompasses effective communication, change management, performance enhancement, stimulating team members, effectively managing /developing subordinates performance, improving individual and team productivity /efficiency.” – Venugopal Prabhakar


So, what can we take away from this small but well-informed set of comments about leadership competencies?  Well if we may be so bold, the ability to think and then communicate seems to lie at the heart of almost all of the competencies mentioned (although a few like critical thinking and emotional intelligence and others that are often written about as important in the leadership skills mix were absent from this list altogether). However, we think as a quick poll (of what an informed group of people think matters in the leadership realm), the whole list is a useful start to the debate to be had in every single organization. In the final analysis, as several people commented, context will always be critical.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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