Leadership skills

Skills refers to the ability to do something effectively.  Like traits, skills also have an inherited component, but can be learned to a large extend. Skills relevant to effective leadership includes technical skills, social skills, cognitive skills and administrative skills.  This applies to all levels and types of management

Although all types and levels of management require the same skills, the extend to which it is applied differs depending on

  • Level of management
  • Type of organisation
  • The external environment

Level of management

Higher levels of management requires more conception skills while lower levels of management requires more technical skills.  It is important to adjust to the new requirements as you move to higher levels of management.

Managerial skills
Relative importance of skills for different Levels of management

Top level managers have to deal with more complex and poorly defined problems.  They need to analyse large amounts of contradictory and ambiguous information.  They also need to have interaction with a variety of different role players.  Some technical skill is needed, but not to the same extend as lower level managers.

Lower level managers is mainly responsible for implementing policy and maintaining existing structures.  This requires less conceptual and interpersonal skills and more technical skills.

In big organisations where decision making is highly centralized, top level managers will require more technical skills.

Lower level managers who are expected to participate in strategic sessions  will need more conceptual skills.

Type of organisation

It is not so easy to transfer these skills from one organisation to the next.  Lower levels of managers requires a lot of technical skill.  It is therefore not so easily transferred to between different types of organisations or different industries.

Top executives is not so reliant on technical aspects.  But top executives rely a lot on conceptual skills.  They need knowledge about the company’s products, services, processes etc.  It takes time to build up the knowledge needed.

The external environment

Over the lifetime of a company, different skill sets may be required.  For example, skills needed by management of a new organisation will differ from those of a big established organisation.  Globalization, technological developments and social changes in the external environment will also determine the skill set required.


In short, technical skills are about things.  Social skills are about people and conceptual skills are about ideas.  Administrative skills requires a combination of technical, social and conceptual skills.  Let’s look at each in more detail.

Technical skills

Technical skills refer to knowledge about methods, processes and techniques and the ability to use tools and equipment to conduct a specialized activity.

A manager must have knowledge and skills relating to the technical aspects of his organisational unit.  He must also have knowledge about the organisation’s products and services (including technical specifications, strengths and limitations)

One could wonder why technical knowledge is required, seeing that the manager will not be doing the work himself.  But how do you plan and organize operations which you do not understand?  You also need tot supervise subordinates and evaluate/monitor their performance on a technical level.  Technical knowledge is also important for entrepreneurial managers who need to come up with new innovative ideas.  In order to do strategic planning, you also need to have knowledge about the company’s products and services and how it compare with competitors.

Technical skills is a major success factor for technical managers (together with verbal fluency).  Technical skills can be acquired through a combination of training, formal education and job experience.  For this the manager need a good memory and the ability to combine information from different sources.

Social/Interpersonal skills

Social skills refer to knowledge and insight into human behavior and interpersonal processes (feelings and stuff), and the ability to communicate clearly and establish cooperative relationships.

Social insight

Managers must be alert to the needs of others.  They must understand their feelings, attitudes, motives, perceptions and values.  Social insight makes it easier to select the best influence strategy.  It also helps a manager to listen to someones problems, criticisms and complaints in an attentive, sympathetic and non-judgmental way.

Poor interpersonal skills is one of the big reasons why managers derail.  Good interpersonal skills must become part of who you are.  It is not something you can just switch on depending on the situation.  Others will be watching your every move.

Charm definitely works … not for me though   🙂


A manager must speak fluently and be able to communicate symbolically, verbally, and non-verbally.  Strong oral presentation skills are needed.  They must make persuasive, clear and convincing presentations.  They must also be diplomatic and tactful.

Cooperative relationships

Managers must be able to understand group processes, build member identification and team spirit.  This includes creating symbols of group identity, emphasize common interest and need for collaboration, facilitating successful teamwork, provide public recognition for member contributions.

Managers need the ability to develop networks and coalitions, gain cooperation and resolve conflicts in a constructive manner.

Emotional intelligence

Emotions are strong feelings that effect our behavior and thoughts.  It is therefor necessary for a manager to understand his own emotions and to integrate emotion and reason.  Emotions must be managed cognitively (meaning you have to think about your emotions, understand where it is coming from and use it to improve)

Self-awareness is the ability to understand your own moods and emotions, to know where it is coming from, how it affects your behavior, performance and relationships.

Self-monitoring is the ability to use cues from others to understand your own behavior and to adjust it depending on the requirements of the situations.  Self-monitoring can help managers to resolve conflicts more effectively.

Self-regulation is the ability to channel your emotions into behavior that is appropriate for the situation.  The manager must also be able to express his /her emotions verbally in an appropriate way.

Social intelligence

Social intelligence is the ability to determine the requirements in a situation and select a appropriate response.  Social intelligence consists of social perceptiveness and behavioral flexibility.

Social perceptiveness is the ability to understand what needs to be done to make a group or organisation more effective.

Behavioral flexibility is the ability and willingness to change your behavior to fit the requirements of the situation.  High behavioral flexibility implies a mental model with fine distinction between the different types of leadership behavior and its possible consequences.

Cognitive/conceptual skills

Cognitive skills refer to analytical ability, logical thinking, creative idea generation and problem solving.  These skills can be measured by aptitude tests.

Managers needs to be intelligent and have a high level of cognitive complexity.  A person with a low level of cognitive complexity sees things in simplistic black and white.  A person with a high level of cognitive complexity understand how things fit together and can use current trends to predict the future.  A manager with a high level of cognitive complexity have foresight, intuition, good judgement and the ability to find meaning in ambiguous and uncertain situations.  Intuition is developed through extensive experience with similar situations.

Research showed that weak conceptual skills is one of the reasons why managers derail.  The job gets to complex for the charming but not brilliant manager to get by on social skills only.

Cognitive skills required by managers are:

  • the ability to identify opportunities, patterns and trends;
  • the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information and to find relationships in information and events;
  • the ability to develop creative solutions and new insights into problems;
  • the ability to anticipate changes and potential problems and to detect deviations from plans;
  • the ability to understand how changes in one part of the system affects other parts and how changes in the external environment affects the organisation (systems thinking);
  • the ability to develop/use a concept/model to interpret events, analyse situations and convey meaning;
  • the ability to use appropriate metaphors and analogies;
  • the ability to understand the task and take initiative;
  • persistence in dealing with problems;
  • the ability to learn from experience and adapt to change.  Also the ability to learn how to learn (the ability to analyse your own cognitive processes and improve them).

Administrative skills

Administrative skills refer to the ability to do managerial functions like planning, monitoring, organizing and control.   A manager needs to use his technical, conceptual and social skills to do this effectively.  Coordination of separate specialized parts of the organisation


Gary Yukl, Leadership in organisations.  Sixth Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005, Chapter 7

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