9 Skill Sets For Leadership: What The Experts Tells Us

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior (1850-1899) Girl with a Book. If you cannot define it, you cannot understand it. And if you can’t understand it, one can’t do it.

A leadership skill set consists of other important skills. Check out 9 different lists of leadership skill sets to find out what the experts studies say you need to lead.

By Murray Johannsen, August, 2014. Feel free to connect with the author on LinkedinGoogle+ or by email. Last Update Jan 2017


 What Leadership Is

True Leadership is Not the Use of Authority

One of the problems inherent in understanding leadership is that many people confuse use of authority with leadership. Humans are social animals. You might say we are programmed by genetics and culture to follow the instructions from authority figures in an almost unconscious way.

Napoleon on the Imperial Throne by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) Notice the many symbols of authority surrounding Napoleon. In this famous portrait, we see authority artifacts such as robes, the crown, scepters, throne and so on.

Let’s say a police officer pulls you over. If you think about it, here is a perfect stranger issuing instructions, yet we automatically obey. What is interesting is that the officer is able to exercise authority and most of us automatically submit. Potentially, the officer can use force, even deadly force. Of course, most of the time punishment is not so severe — it consists of a fine or a warning. 

Of course, the exercise of authority is necessary for individuals to work together with others. It has been described as a vertical relationship in which one person is dominant while the other person becomes submissive. 

Leaders should feel free to use authority when it makes sense. Getting compliance in large organizations, the military, or high power distance countries is essentially impossible without it. We are all willing to follow the alpha male or female.

Position Power Is Not Leadership 

The popular media often confuses position power with true leadership. It’s often assumed that the alpha is the leader of the tribe. If one only looks at position power, this is the case. However, just because you occupy the chair and have the title, doesn’t mean you exercise anything more than the authority granted by the position.

A picture of the Shackelton’s ship locked in the ice. “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” – Explorer Ernest Shackleton. The ad placed in the newspaper by Shackleton to solicit volunteers for the endeavor.

Leadership Is About Influence

This is a basic characteristic of all leaders. They know how to influence. The make some type of change happen, whether that change is something related to behavior or thinking. A classic example is a parent telling a child what to do. When a child is very young, they follow instructions very well. When they get older? Parental authority gets weaker and it helps to know how to persuade.

Leadership Requires Persuasion

Madonna and Child by Hans Holbien The Younger (1498-1543)

Persuasion is the use of language to change thinking, attitudes and sometimes even values. All great leaders persuade and have learned how to persuade. Often we are more persuasive than we think. I often have students do an exercise called the “persuasive pitch.” They to pick a friend and engage in a persuasive conversation, one that causes a change in thinking. They simple construct a persuasive appeal using a set of statements that appeal to logic, emotion or motivation. Most of the time, they succeed.

But persuasion is a complex skill consisting of other skills. You may want to consult:

• The 6 Critical Interpersonal Communication Skills. People skills matter. The leading cause of failure of new front-line supervisors are their human relations and communication skills. You might say they get promoted due to their technical skills, demoted since they lack leadership ones.

• 6 Communication Skills Needed to Lead. Find out more about verbal skills focused on contexts like small groups and larger organizations.

“For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” — Pareto’s Principle. Sometimes known as the Law of the Vital Few.

Everyone has their favorite list of leadership skills. As one can see from the lists of skills in these studies, success in organizations actually consists of a small number of skills. While every study mentions a little bit different list, there are certain patterns. Can you pick them out?

Leadership Requires Motivation

Motivation differs from persuasion in a very subtle way — the focus is on behavior, not thinking. Many who study psychology believe that behavior is easier to change than most attitudes or beliefs. In fact, there are a number of theories that describe why even words can change behavior. On the behavioral side, there are three: classical conditioning, operant conditioning and vicarious learning or modeling. 

Which brings us to what one can do to develop into a great leader. To do that, one can read, and read, and read. This can turn you into a leadership scholar. But to do something in the real world, you will need to test your leadership ability in different situations.

• Motivational Essentials. You can’t lead if you can’t motivate. The page lists six key theories to unlocking the secrets of motivation.

The Leadership Skill Set — What Different Studies Say

Picture of Abraham Lincoln. Former president of the United States during a difficult time of its history: The Civil War

Study 1: The Skill Set of Effective Managers


Study List 2: The Executive Skill Set


The CEO Leadership Skill Set


Skill Set Four: Air Force Officers


Access the .pdf version of the above four studies

Key Skill Set List 5: Luthan, Fred, Rosenkrantz, Stuart, Hennessey, Harry (1985). What do Successful Managers Really do? An Observational Study of Managerial Activities. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 21: 255-270

The research question was, “What skills differentiated the most effective versus least effective managers?” Despite the focus on management, a number of leadership skills such as communication skills and use of power are mentioned. Key organizational skills include:

  • Planning and Goal Setting
  • Processing paperwork
  • Developing subordinates
  • Communicating with insiders
  • Communicating with outsides
  • Building power and influence
  • Managing power 

Important Organizational Skills List 6: Benson, Gary (1983). On the Campus: How Well Do Business Schools Prepare Graduates for the Business World? Personal, 60:61-65

Here a slightly different question was asked. The focus was to summarize the skills needed by students entering the professions using 25 other studies in business journals.

    • Listening
    • Written communication
    • Oral Communication
    • Motivating/Persuading
    • Interpersonal Skills
    • Problem Solving

The Leadership Skill Set List 7: Nahavandi, Alfanseh (2008). The Art and Science of Leadership, 5th Edition, Prentice-Hall.

Included in their list is:

  • Building effective relationships
  • Providing others (bosses, subordinates, peers) with resources 
  • Making good decisions effectively
  • Strategic planning
  • Listening

Leader Skills List 8: Quinn, Robert; Faeman, Sue; Thompson, Michael; McGrath, Michael; St. Clair, Lynda; (2011). Becoming a Master Manager. John Wiley.

This is more of a comprehensive list of both leadership skills and management competencies.

  • Understanding Self and Others
  • Communicating Honestly and Effectively
  • Mentoring and Developing Others
  • Managing Groups and Leading Teams
  • Managing and Encouraging Constructive Conflict
  • Organizing Information Flows
  • Working and Managing Across Functions
  • Planning and Coordinating Projects
  • Measuring and Monitoring Performance and Quality
  • Encouraging and Enabling Compliance
  • Developing and Communicating a Vision
  • Setting Goals and Objectives
  • Motivating Self and Others
  • Designing and Organizing
  • Managing Execution and Driving for Result
  • Using Power Ethically and Effectively
  • Championing and Selling New Ideas
  • Fueling and Fostering Innovation
  • Negotiating Agreement and Commitment
  • Implementing and Sustaining Change

List 9: Desired Leadership Skills Sets in Managers

Whetten & Cameron (2011) in their book Developing Management Skills choose eleven skills to focus on. While the others called this management skills (they are management professors), in reality they are more properly categorized as leadership skills. The list includes:

· Interpersonal Skills (Developing Self-Awareness & Creativity)

· Interpersonal Skills (Power, Motivation, Conflict)

· Group Skills (Delegating and Teamwork)

· Communication Skills (Presentations, Conducting Meetings, Interviews)

Notice that the first two relate to self-development & self-mastery, areas typically not included in lists of leadership skills or management ones for that matter. 


As one can tell, there is no agreement on what is the most important but there are patterns. For example, in almost every list there is communication and motivation. Fortunately, if you devote time and money to leadership skills development, you will not have that much competition.

“Leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned by reading about it.” — Henry Mintzberg, McGill University School of Management, The Nature of Managerial Work, Harper & Row, 1973

3 Other Lists of Leader Skill Sets 

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867): Apotheose Napoleons I. Notice that this is actually a picture of the apotheosis of Napolean. This means, the elevation of someone to divine status; deification. The other mean of the word is, "The development of the highest or the climax."
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867): Apotheose Napoleons I. Notice that the symbols of an apotheosis. It means the elevation of someone to a divine status or deification. The other meaning of the word is, “The development of the highest or the climax.”

Sound Motivation Theories. If you can’t motivate, you cannot lead. Discover some of the best theories psychology has to offer.

12 Verbal Leadership Communications Skills. These make all the difference in today’s world. 

Hubpages (2012)Twenty Key Leadership SkillsThis is a good list. All focused on leadership.

Final Words

Alsace, Haut-Rhin, Jungholtz, Basilique Notre-Dame de Thierenbach, Peintures monumentales, lutrin, tabouret, stalles, ombellino de procession. Image by rh-67. In great works of art, you see someone who did not believe in being average and “good enough for government work.”  They pushed to perfect skills, as should you.

When we are successful at something, we chalk it up to skill. But, when we screw-up, we’ll say it’s just bad luck. But Michael Mauboussin writes that skill and luck are intertwined.

There are a number of different skills sets needed to lead. You will find some of the major ones listed on this page.

Resources and References

Elkinberry, Kevin (2007). Remarkable Leadership: Unleashing Your Leadership Potential One Skill at a Time, Jossey-Bass.

Dilts, Robert (1996.) Visionary Leadership Skills: Creating a World to Which People Want to Belong. Metapublications

Mahoney, Janet (2008). Leadership Skills For the 21st Century. Journey of Nursing Management, Volume 9: 269-271

Morrison, Emily (1994). Leadership Skills. Developing Volunteers for Organizational Success. Da Capo Press.

Owen, Jo (2007). The Leadership Skills Handbook: 50 Skills From 1000 Leaders. Kogan Page.

Hamm, John (2011). Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership. Jossey-Bass.


Two Critical Questions For Developing Leadership Skills



Leadership Skill Development