Why behaviours not skills are the key to leadership success

Lubna Haq | 2 December 2022

Recently, I have read several articles praising the virtues of skills over behaviours. In fact, a couple of my clients have been seduced by this notion and have also mentioned that they think that the priority given to skills needs to trump behaviours in leadership development support.

This had me really puzzled so I decided to explore this further. When I drilled down into the articles, I realised that they don’t actually mean that technical skills are the most important. That seems to be a soundbite headline. What they seem to mean by ‘skills’ lumps everything from technical to soft skills and behaviours into one broad ‘skills’ bucket. Not ideal. Or helpful.

As a seasoned leadership practitioner, (and supported by decades of research!), I know that skills alone do not create successful leaders. It isn’t a guarantee that knowing ‘stuff’ will lead to success. Yes, for most roles, a degree of technical competence is critical, but it’s in knowing how to apply the skill where real power lies.

I am concerned that we may end up taking retrograde steps and fall back into the mindset that academic qualifications, technical skills in a particular industry, the jobs held before, and job history will be seen as the predictors of success in a role or the route an individual must take to progress. These are baseline. The way a leader operates needs to be layered on top. Context also matters – a lot. A good leader in one setting can be an absolute flop somewhere else.

Daniel Goleman in his research on Emotional Intelligence shows that intellectual capability and technical expertise do not necessarily lead to career success. We just need to think back to our school days. Are those that were considered the ‘cleverest’ students, the ones that have gone on to achieve greatest success? It is certainly not true of my friends. Those that demonstrated great emotional intelligence and developed this behavioural approach in their lives are those people whose careers have flown. Admittedly, they also learnt how to navigate complex political organisations early on in their careers and knew how to seek out mentors and coaches to help them along their journey.

As part of my job, it’s my privilege to coach leaders on a one-to-one basis. I am always fascinated by the way people who have more successful outcomes and thriving teams operate. I would say:

  • They are curious and consciously strive to do things better.
  • They continue to develop their levels of sophistication in how they influence and interact with others.
  • They are authentic, inclusive and confident and show an interest in what others say, think feel and do.
  • They listen, build trust, work collaboratively, keep promises, are honest and are not threatened by talented individuals.
  • They focus on the idea that ‘your success is my/our success’.
  • They demonstrate resilience and equip their teams to be able to do the same.
  • They help people to deliver successful performance.

I don’t think there is a technical manual that ‘teaches’ this. During a period of rapid global change and disruption, and a war on recruiting and retaining talent, I hope we don’t fall back into the trap of prioritising technical know-how.

A related and important point is that many Black and Asian professionals have to work harder to be spotted against a sea of predominantly white privileged individuals in senior ranks and board rooms. This has led many to fall into the trap of thinking that they are the problem and that adding yet another post graduate qualification or skill to their CV will unlock the door to promotion or success as leader. Frustratingly, many have realised that this is not true.

It’s incredibly important to address this. Not just to elevate those who have been overlooked, but so that organisations have access to the best possible leaders. This can be done as part of talent management and development by providing fast-track programmes that spot the right behaviours and potential and put programmatic solutions in to accelerate their progress on making a behavioural leadership impact.

So, in summary, to use a sporting analogy, skills gets you on the playing field but behaviours makes you that elite player.

To find our how we can help support your leadership development programme, please get in touch.

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