On Developing Leadership Attributes

There are times when I come across something that neatly distills and packages a number of thoughts that concern the development of leaders.  Not just the “How do I develop leadership skills in my organization?” question, but the not-so-subtle question that should be asked by everyone stepping out into a career, ”What skills do I need to focus on to develop myself as a leader?”

What follows is a reblog (with permission) of a post by Dr. Marla Gottschalk that previously appeared on LinkedIn and again on her site, The Office Blend.  It provides pretty clear answers to the first question, but if carefully read, as if she is speaking to my development, it applies equally well to the second question.

As a bonus, it struck me as I was reading that it also is a goldmine of input for the very relevant (but often ignored) question, “What Do I Need to Focus on to Develop Myself to Become an Influencer in Life?” The “layering” approach addressed below, and as I experienced it, also pertains to the rest of life outside of work, including marriage, family, and other social situations.

Moreover, it also illuminated subtle but important distinctions. Traits are something innate, what we’re born with.  In identifying future leaders we need to see this potentialSkills are abilities and talents that can be taught and developed into what identified leaders doAttributes, mentioned in this blog title, are qualities or characteristics of the person.  If one has a trait that has been developed into effective skills, then, hopefully, these can and will eventually merge into and become a leader attribute: an inherent part of who the person is most if not all of the time.

I’ve taken the liberty, therefore, to add some thoughts, in italics, that struck me about this broader question (trusting that Dr. Gottschalk would not disapprove).


Leadership Development is All About Layering
Dr. Marla Gottschalk

The challenge of developing leaders can loom as a daunting prospect.  One reason that might explain our predicament is an underlying belief that early career experiences and later leadership roles are completely distinct entities.  In reality, many of the skills required for success at various career levels overlap and remain critical over time.  If we could approach development as a “layered” phenomenon, likened to the stratum of rock formations (or perhaps like a phyllo pastry) — building core strengths over a longer period of time — we could take a fresh approach to development.

Leadership readiness doesn’t materialize as the result of completing an inflexible, structured development program.  Becoming a capable leader is an evolution — a comingling of training, coaching, and exposure to the types of challenge that offer the opportunity for both insight and growth.  (Perhaps likened to developing skills until they begin to convert to attributes)

As discussed in the research of Zenger/Folkman, we have made a habit of unwisely delaying when developing leaders.  While we often begin managing others in our 30’s — focused leadership development may not begin in earnest until much later.  This creates a precarious skill gap, which can leave an organization both underpowered and unprepared. In fact, we should begin nurturing future leaders much sooner, reinforcing key skills acquired along the way.  This would address the “layering” of skills necessary to build a strong potential leader bench.  Identifying potential leaders in this manner has a number of key strategic advantages, the first of which is improved succession planning.

Additional research discussed at HBR, illustrates this layered dynamic quite clearly. Some of the skills required to progress through levels of management may be more stable than previously considered.  While specific skill emphasis may change with level, certain skill sets remain front and center for the long haul.  Thinking strategically, for example, is a perfect case in point as it is often associated with high-level leaders.  But, as discussed by the researchers, “…there are a set of skills that are critical to you throughout your career.  And if you wait until you’re a top manager to develop strategic perspective, it will be too late.”  (Thoughts that crossed my mind here, for instance, included early strategic thinking about life after kids and retirement, and then executing consistently.)

Testing developing capabilities with techniques such as stretch assignments (aligned with organizational initiatives and coupled with their current role) should also serve as an integral part in development.  This offers opportunities to test skills on the “open road.”  However, within modern organizations, retaining talent longer-term becomes a critical obstacle. Here, transparency and a mutual exchange agreement become crucial.  We should consider making a commitment to those with considerable promise openly (such as “Tours of duty” discussed in Reid Hoffman’s, The Alliance) — offering the stability they need to hunker down and become emotionally invested. (In the broader life scenario, for instance, entering into a cross-cultural experience, one that is decidedly not short-term.  Or, self-selecting and responding to a particular challenging (stretch) opportunity, such as self-development.)

Here are few other early (self) development topics we could consider:

  • Delegating. Often a sticky subject, delegating confidently demands that we strike a delicate balance between time and control. If we don’t allow others the opportunity to handle the tasks at hand, we risk squelching motivation and our own potential to lead.  (Think family and shared responsibilities, and engagement in volunteer organizations.)
  • Persuasive Communication. Becoming an effective communicator remains a core skill set throughout our work lives.  This becomes especially critical as we move toward leadership positions.  (Also think family and daily social interaction.)
  • Conflict Management. The capability of facing difficult or uncomfortable challenges, head on — is critical.  Developing this skill often takes time and mentored practice to master.  (Really think family here, as well as many social interactions.)
  • Awareness of Functional Links. Organizations are comprised of many moving parts.  Becoming keenly aware of the interdependencies is a critical skill as we move toward a leadership role.  (Ahhh, did I mention family?)
  • Alliance Building. Leading is essentially knowing how to collaborate and build positive, lasting bonds with those that around you.  If you cannot inspire energy toward a meaningful goal, your leadership “quotient” is limited, at best.  (For instance, engaging in volunteer organizations. A most challenging one is thinking ‘lasting positive bonds’ within the family while still ‘leading’ (i.e., parenting).)
  • Global Awareness. In this day and age, leaders need to consider global reach.  Developing a honed industry-wide perspective is vital to move forward.  (Becoming and remaining open to culturally different points of view, whether local or global, and not considering them initially threatening.)
  • Idea Management and Intrapreneurship. Team contributors desire opportunities to explore their ideas and spread their wings.  Having the ability to identify, evaluate, champion and execute the ideas of the team is critical.  (Recognizing and accepting that creative ideas and solutions can pop up from anyone, both at work and in the family. Looking more for opportunity “in” failure rather than only punishment.)

What are the challenges your organization faces with leader development?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist.  She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.


I can honestly say there was a lot of cross-fertilization throughout my career, family, and organizations that, I think, helped move my recognition and development of skills more into an arena of possessed and practiced attributes.  I was slower than some, I think, because I had to discover this process myself through trial and error.  Fortunately, now that need no longer be the case.

About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, Career and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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