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Skills theory

The skills theory of leadership follows a leader-centred perspective, similar to the traits theory. However, the difference is that the skills approach puts more emphasis on the skills and abilities that can be learned and developed.

Developing the skills theory

Katz (1955: 34) defined skills as what leaders can accomplish, while traits are what leaders are. He argued that effective leadership or management depends on three basic personal skills: technical, human and conceptual. These skills are required to a different extent at different levels of management, as described by the diagram below.

Top management require some technical skills, but higher levels of human and conceptual skills. Middle management require high levels of technical, human and conceptual skills. Supervisory management require high levels of technical and human skils, but lower levels of conceptual skills. Adapted from Katz (1955: 33-42)

The skills approach provides an outline of the skills of leaders at all levels that an organisation can use. Moreover, it helps you identify your own strengths and weaknesses in regard to the three key skills identified by Katz: technical, human and conceptual.

In the 1990s, a group of researchers conducted a study on a sample of more than 1,800 Army officers to explain the underlying elements of effective performance. The findings from that study developed what is commonly referred to as the Mumford group skills-based model of leadership.

This model has three skills components: individual attributes, competencies and leadership outcomes. It also suggests that career experiences and environmental influences feed into these skills (Mumford et al. 2000).

Individual attributes include cognitive ability, motivation and personality. There is an arrow linking individual attributes to competencies, which are problem-solving skills, social judgement skills and knowledge. There is an arrow linking competencies to leadership outcomes, which are effective problem solving and performance. Career experiences feed into individual attributes and competencies, and environmental experiences feed into all three components. Adapted from Mumford et al. (2000: 23)

The skills theory is not used in an applied leadership setting, since there is no formal training package to teach people about leadership using this theory.


Katz, R.L. (1955) ‘Skills of an Effective Administrator’. Harvard Business Review 33 (1), 33-42

Mumford, M.D., Zaccaro, S.J., Harding, F.D., Jacobs, T.O., and Fleishman, E.A. (2000) ‘Leadership Skills for a Changing World: Solving Complex Social Problems’. Leadership Quarterly 11 (1), 23

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This article is from the free online course:

The Evolution of Management and Leadership Theory

Coventry University