Skills approach

So far we have looked at two approaches: trait approach, which focuses on personality and traits, and the style approach, which focuses on behaviours.

The skills approach focuses on knowledge and abilities.

The skills approach suggests that skills, knowledge and abilities that are required for a leader to be effective can be learned and developed (Northouse 2013: 43). Many people have leadership potential, which can be enhanced by experiences and training to make them become more effective leaders (Northouse 2013). Training, exposure, experiences and involvement with certain activities can prepare people for leadership positions.

Seminal studies on skills

The two most influential models are by Katz (1955) and Mumford et al. (2000). Both complement each other by providing different views on leadership from the skills perspective. For example:

Katz (1955) identified three different abilities that a leader should have, namely:

  • Technical skills
  • Human skills
  • Conceptual skills

Technical skills: refers to the knowledge and expertise required in a specific type of work or activity. This could include the need for specialised knowledge in order to apply specific methods, techniques, processes and procedures. For example, to use certain computer software packages is an advanced technical skill (eg, Microsoft Office, Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, Systems Applications and Products in Data Processing (SAP) etc.). These types of skills can be developed through vocational training and on-the-job training programmes.

Human skills: refers to the people skills required to work effectively with followers, peers and superiors. This includes verbal and written communication skills, the ability to motivate others and create a positive team spirit. A leader with high human skills would be aware of their own behaviour and how this can affect the followers.

Conceptual skills: refers to the skills that allow the leader to think through and work with ideas, hypotheses and concepts. Leaders with good conceptual skills are good at working with abstract ideas and hypothetical situations. Some important conceptual skills include deep strategic thinking, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving.

Katz managerial skills

The table above illustrates the three skills needed by a leader in an organisation. Katz argued further that the level of importance of each set of skills (technical, human and conceptual) will be based on the level of authority that the person has in the organisation. For example, top management will most likely need fewer technical skills and more conceptual skills so that they have a holistic view of the organisation. Supervisory management would need more technical skills to be able to assist their followers. Middle management should have a good level of technical, human and conceptual skills to be able to assist the top and supervisory management team.

Northouse concluded that:

It is important for leaders to have all three skills, but depending on where they are in the management structure, some skills are more important than others.

Northouse (2013: 46)

Strengths

Northouse (2013) identified the following:

  • Makes leadership available to everyone by laying emphasis on learned (and learnable) skills rather than on traits
  • Provides an expansive view of leadership that incorporates a wide variety of components (ie, problem-solving skills and social judgment skills)
  • Provides a structure that is consistent with leadership education programs

Weaknesses

Northouse (2013) identified the following:

  •  Descriptive in nature; does not explain how skills could lead to effective leadership performance
  • Includes certain innate abilities which are trait-like (eg, motivation and cognitive ability)
  • Fundamentals appear to be exhaustive, making the approach more generic and less precise

References

Katz, R. L. (1955). Skills of an effective administrator. Harvard Business Review, 33 (1), 33-42

Northouse, P. (2013) Leadership: Approach and Practice. 6th edn. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publishing

Mumford, M.D., Zaccaro, S.J., Connelly, M.S., Marks, M.A. (2000). ‘Leadership Skills: Conclusions and Future Directions’. Leadership Quarterly 11 (1), 155-70


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This article is from the free online course:

Leadership Theory: The Basics

Coventry University