The Four Competencies of Leadership

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It’s wonderful—perhaps because it’s so rare—to reread something that you started using thirty years ago and discover that it’s still highly relevant. Desktops were just beginning to show up and technology organizations were starting to use organizational networks. Organizations began to flatten and the need for leading started to surface. The talk was all about leading, not managing.

The Pillsbury CIO had a lot of money but little leadership talent on his team. So he tracked me down and asked me to work with a number of his new managers. I had done some coaching in R&D–as an experiment–and on a fluke, he brought me in.

I’d first encountered leadership material in grad school in the 1960s. I understood the distinction between managing and leading and could observe the differences. I was also quite certain leadership could be learned—a minority position at the time. Searching around for an adaptation of leadership material to business, I stumbled onto an essay by Warren Bennis. Over the years I’ve kept his conclusions on the front  burner, applying them to many situations. The essay is still “cutting edge”–even in the digital age.

I warn you, Bennis’ stuff doesn’t look like what you usually see on about leadership. Bennis did a lot of interviewing about leadership, but most of all, he did a lot of observing before he finally framed up the issue. In a single essay he put it all together under the single rubric of character. His conclusions are all about character—and that lens remains groundbreaking and immensely relevant. The four competencies of leadership are:

The management of attention
One of the traits most obvious in leaders is what I call personal “pull.” Because they’ve got a vision, a strategy, an agenda, a reality structure that fits the organization’s needs, they draw people . Their way of thinking, their intelligence and vision, draws people to a place they’ve not been before. They are both attractive and influential so people are attentive. They want to be around the leader, want to make sure their relationship is good—even after differences have been aired. This power is earned, not necessarily vested.

The management of attention is not mystical. It’s a vibrant sense of outcome or direction that’s reflected in the leader’s persona, action and talk.

The management of meaning
If you’ve done a lot of reading about leadership, you’ll recognize that the “management of meaning,”  a form of sensemaking, is a rarely mentioned attribute. To make their vision clear and to align people with them, leaders creatively communicate their vision—they manage meaning. Great leaders can do it on stage, one-on-one–and in writing. Their emails, for example, are pungent and vital—with eye-catching clarity just like their conversation.   The management of meaning is almost jarring because the leader’s own personal identity reflects the identity of his organization. He is the organization’s vision. And he understands that leadership is conversation.

The management of trust
Bennis sees trust as a highly significant character attribute, but he has a slightly different focus on the attribute. Bennis does not view leadership trust from typical perspectives of honesty, fairness or unselfishness. Rather, he thinks of trust as reliability, constancy or even predictability. Trust means that leader can be counted on. Whether you like it or not, you know where he’s coming from and what he stands for. Studies show that people would much rather follow individuals they can count on, even when they disagree.

A client of mine, a vice-president, once commented that that her CEO would fire his mother if she didn’t achieve her objectives. “But,” she went on, “that gives me a great deal of comfort, because I always know where he’s coming from and what he expects.”

The management of self
This leadership competency is knowing your skills and using them effectively. And knowing your weaknesses, too.  Without this self-knowledge, leaders can end up doing more harm than good. When you’ve got self-knowledge, you know what counsel to ask for so you can figure out who to go to for insight. Recognizing your limitations is tough, but it’s also absolutely necessary. Getting trusted feedback can be difficult for the leader, but you can’t lead without it.

Managing yourself means you know your relevant strengths and you nurture them. And you shore up your strategic weaknesses.

For many people becoming a leader means reinventing themselves. That’s not being deceptive, it’s being realistic. Isaiah Berlin, that insightful essayist on politics and liberty, once remarked that his reputation was based on the “systematic overestimation of his abilities.” And then he added merrily—in a lesson for all of us—“long may this continue.” That’s the lesson for anyone who would become a leader.

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