What is the most important skill for a new leader?

What is the most important skill for a new leader?

It’s the end of February… March and April are just around the corner.  Conference Tournaments. NCAA’s.  Coaching changes.  The end of season right of passage.  Every year, the same – the inevitable.

Usually 25+ new head coaches are hired in Division I Men’s & Women’s Basketball each year.

What is the most important skill for those “First-Timers” as a new leader?

Leadership 501 recently identified some important characteristics or abilities that are necessary.  They polled many experts, posted their answers and interjected their insight.  We, as coaches, can apply these ideas to  new first time leadership roles, as well as continuing to improve on what leadership skills we already possess.

Constant learning. Public speaking is also important.

It is much easier to want to follow someone who is constantly improving themselves.  Public speaking is something that is often overlooked. Even a leader that does no public speaking needs the communication skills that come from having a good public speaking ability.

Connection skills: connection to work, organization, and the people you lead. Getting everyone to connect at an authentic level to their strengths and to leverage their strengths in the service of the organization. Remember as leaders we are human.

I have definitely seem many people try to lead who do not have this ability.  Some of this comes from having a “I’m the leader, you are the follower” attitude.  Some comes from simply not spending enough time paying attention to those around you.  There is a huge difference between “leadership” and “power.”  There are people who empower others and lead and there are people who are in charge and have power.  It’s pretty easy to tell the difference.

There are so many skills needed, but I think the most important skill for a new leader is to learn the art of command. This includes a new leader taking unpopular stands when necessary, facing adversity head on and encouraging open debate as a way to work through tough challenges and crises. Young leaders have to develop the emotional and mental strength to be able to communicate with higher management, (administration) investors (boosters and alumni) and tough competitors (recruiting), and in order to do this, a leader has to come up with big ideas and express them with passion and conviction. A young leader has to know the “cutting line” as to when he/she will say “We’re moving on” and then follow through each decision with a presence that communicates strength and confidence.

Leadership Coach Bea Fields, President of Bea Fields Companies, Inc. from Five Star Leader.com

Very good advice.  At least part of this comes down to knowing what to do. Early in my career I watched my boss avoid confrontation on a particular issue.  I didn’t understand why she didn’t push to “take care of things.”  One month later, the situation resolved itself without her needing to create any type of conflict.  I realized that she had the experience to know when to push and when to let things go.  It was extremely valuable and something I worked hard to develop in myself.  It is not an easy skill and must be practiced and perfected.

Thought!!!!! Leaders must keep things in perspective and most of all, keep the Desired Outcomes in mind. They must also continually remind their people of the purpose behind the processes. People need to find meaning in their work.

Jim Cathcart from Cathcart Institute, Inc

This is another area where I’ve seen a number of counter examples.  I’ve worked places where no one knew exactly what they were trying to do because the leader didn’t want to tell them the goals.  The logic was that if they new the goals and missed them people would be discouraged.  What this leader didn’t seem to realize is that everyone was running in different directions because no one was communicating their purpose, direction and why those things were important.

The ability to connect with and communicate with others. Leadership is not so much about what you do. It’s about what you can encourage and inspire others to do. It’s about creating a vision and communicating that vision to others. Leaders inspire people and point people to a brighter and better future and empower them to take action to make that future a reality.

Jon Gordon, author of the international best seller, The Energy Bus from  www.JonGordon.com

This is a good distinction about the role of a leader.  Leaders often get too caught up in doing all the work and don’t spend enough time communicating their vision to people around them.  This is one of the reasons leaders hit a glass ceiling when it comes to growth.


Bussta Brown from Leadership Cultivation

Humility is one of those things that can help everything else fall into place.

Humility – the ability to understand that they are a conduit for activity not the driver of activity. Leaders need to value the input and work of the team – demonstrate that value and continue to set goals and objectives for the team to tackle.

Paul Hebert from Incentive Intelligence

Another vote for humility.  It is sometimes difficult for a leader to get to the point where they understand that the value of their team working together toward the goal is often greater than getting things done exactly the way the leader would do it on their own.

As John F Kennedy once said ‘Leaders are perpetual learners’. An attitude of openess towards learning – learning from every single incident how much ever trivial it appears to be, learning from every single person that they meet, how much ever small that person appears to be – is the most important skill for a leader. Leaders should go around with a permenant ‘Learner’s Board’ around their neck.

Sangeeth Varghese from LeadCap: Building a nation of leaders

When a leader things they have “arrived” they are probably not going to accomplish much more.

Being able to learn from everyone around them – as quickly as possible.

Marshall Goldsmith from Marshall Goldsmith Library

This is an interesting perspective.  So much of the time we focus on the way that leaders need to communicate out and teach people around them.  It is just as important for them to quickly learn from the people they are working with.

This is a tough question. There are so many important skills to be developed simultaneously and that development is continual. If I have to choose one I would say communication. If a leader is a poor communicator, he will never be able to create the cultural climate necessary to bring about positive change. Leadership is about taking people from point A to point B and this rarely happens in a straight line. It’s more like leading people through an obstacle course while blindfolded. The leader has to stay ahead of the team, pointing out the obstacles and communicating where to go next.
In the ancient middle east, shepherds would share large, walled, areas for their sheep to sleep in at night. These areas were meant for the protection of the sheep from predators such as wolves. The sheep would intermingle in the fold and there was no way to distinguish on shepherd’s sheep from the other by looking at them. Interestingly, when a particular shepherd was ready to take their sheep to pasture, he would simply walk into the fold and make a unique sound with his voice. His sheep knew his voice and his special command. They would get up and follow him out of the fold.
Leaders must develop their unique voice.

Tad Thompson from Total Leadership

The way leadership is often taught is to point out how other leaders did things. Tad’s point about developing your unique voice is often overlooked.  This isn’t to say you can’t learn from the success and failures of others, but it is always important to look at what is working for someone else and figure out how to apply it given your particular personality, goals, and values.

The two essentials for any successful leader are the ability to choose the right strategy and the right people. I have found that the most difficult part of solving this equation is learning to eliminate bad strategy and fire unproductive leaders. There is a natural human reluctance to do much of either, which is why most leaders are mediocre.

Will Marre from Will Marre’s Blog Site

Having a good definition of success is vital for both of these things.  I see a lot of leaders particularly in non-profits who determine success based on how things feel–not on how well they are working. With a business dollars becomes a pretty easy to understand metric, but you need to have other very measurable goals besides money.  Once you have a good measurement, it is easier to determine who needs to go and what strategies are not effective.

Setting sensible priorities for him or herself and those being supervised. It’s easy to yell for results and set near-impossible targets, but all it proves is that you’re an idiot. Macho management, the approach most often practiced today, is based on the erroneous belief that pushing people to their limit is both motivating and acceptable. In reality, all it does is encourage them to cut corners and feed you with whatever you want to hear, just to get you off their backs. No one can do quality work, let alone be creative, if they’re stressed and exhausted. Focus only on what really matters and dump the rest.

Carmine Coyote from Slow Leadership

In this respect, good leaders are kind of like good teachers.  They set goals/assignments that are carefully chosen to help people stretch but still succeed.  The momentum of success is then carried on to the next goal/assignme

I know it’s three, but I believe these three are the tripod of success: Insight, Influence, Integrity.

Shelley Holmes from Leadership and Motivation Training

The ability to understand beyond what is apparent on the surface, the ability to move people toward a desired result, and the ability to operate ethically and inline with your values are all key traits.

Empathy. Understanding others. ‘Sizing people up’.

David Straker from Changing Minds

“Sizing people up” is an interesting skill to try to develop.  Some people have an uncanny ability to read people, but everyone can develop at least some skill in this area simply by becoming more conscious of how you “feel” about various people you meet.

Listening. It is the key to learning, adapting, building community, and developing vision.

Don Frederiksen from Lead Quietly

I think this ties in well with humility that was suggested earlier.  People who are not humble are not going to listen.  People who don’t listen are going to make mistakes that could have been avoided.

Effective communication skills are vital. That includes giving assignments, checking for understanding, following up to make sure that understanding translates into behavior and talking to people about performance or behavior in ways that help them and the team perform better.
For one behavior, I’d pick touching base a lot. Many good things flow from this.

Wally Bock from Three Star Leadership

I see a lot of leaders with a deficit in the area of followup.  They give assignments without any clear indication of how or when success will be measured.  From what I’ve seen of the military leadership model, they seem to do a great job of associating goals and assignments with measurements of success and planned followup.  It is much easier to move forward when followup becomes part of the culture instead of something that only occurs when things go wrong.

Connected to my first answer, my vote would be for communication skills. You can have the most fabulous, legacy-destined message in the world, but you won’t get very far if you cannot articulate it clearly enough to inspire others, causing them to enroll in your goal or movement. Campaigning wow projects has to be your forte: Great leaders are energy creators who infuse people with optimism and fire them up with positive expectancy.

Rosa Say from Managing with Aloha Coaching

Another vote for communication.  It is interesting to consider that the leader with a mediocre vision and good communication skills may still accomplish more than someone with a great vision and mediocre communication skills.

Assertiveness. Clean, clear, unequivocal, don’t-mess-about-with-me, communication is the essential tool of leadership. People need to understand you and they need to know what is important, why it is important, and when it has to be done by. Without this skill, you’ll find delegating very difficult and will become endlessly mired down in tactical detail.

Rowan Manahan from Fortify Your Oasis

When Lafayette was working with Washington’s troops he commented on how the American soldiers would do anything once they knew the reasoning behind it.

Relationship-building. You must be able to walk the walk and talk the talk with people from all angles of the organization. Be nice, friendly, firm, and persuasive. I had a great boss who said that you can easily learn the ‘analytics stuff’, but it takes years of grinding to influence throughout the organization.

Dan Naden from Naden’s Corner

Influence is something very hard to measure, but very vital in getting almost anything done.

The ability to enroll their team in helping to deliver the solution or change needed by helping them all to become leaders, i.e. by building a “distributed leadership” approach in the team, rather than the old-fashioned hierarchical structures.

Mick Yates from LeaderValues

Having compassion and heart is an essential ingredient to leadership. The heart is often a difficult thing to discuss in a business context because people automatically feel that they will be “walked all over” if they are too compassionate. But real compassion and heart is not necessarily soft, but it is truthful. Great leaders see individuals and see their strengths. You can’t really ’see’ another person without having full compassion and releasing judgments. The slate needs to be clean as a leader. When a leader comes loaded with preconceived notions about people and/or situations, they don’t allow room for others to rise to the occasion.

Laura Lopez from Laura Lopez and Company

It’s not so much a skill as it is an ability. Leaders must develop the ability to challenge their own mental models (assumptions, beliefs, perceptions) that shape their decision-making and the actions they take. If their mental models are oriented in the right way (for instance, believing that people generally want to contribute their best every day), then it’s easy to help them develop the specific skills necessary to unleash the talents of the people in their organization. If their mental models are oriented in the wrong way (for instance, believing that people don’t want to perform their best or they are merely trading time for money), then all the skill development in the whole world won’t help the leader be more effective.
Here’s a real world example. Organizations spend millions of dollars every year developing the listening skills of their leaders. They teach them very specific skills about establishing the right environment for most effective listening, minimizing distractions, maintaining eye contact, asking appropriate follow-up questions and re-stating what the other person said. All of which are important. But, if the leader thinks the person they are “listening to” is just a whiner or complainer, the skills don’t matter. They leader is not going to hear what the other person is saying. On the other hand, if the leader truly believes that the other person has something valuable to contribute, even if they are “whining,” then the leader will get the message almost in spite of their actual “skills.” The leader’s effectiveness is determined by his/her mental models.
The challenge is that most of our mental models about leadership are baked in and hidden. Often, leaders aren’t aware of the assumptions they make or their underlying beliefs. And, it can be scary to hold those assumptions and beliefs up for examination and possible changes. So, developing the capability to do so distinguishes great leaders from others

Sean Ryan from WhiteWater Consulting Group

I think that strongly relates to some of the previous suggestions of trying to learn from everyone. Listening to learn is a lot more effective that following some type of list where you are supposed to repeat what they say, etc. Sean is right. If you think the person has nothing to contribute, it doesn’t matter how good your “listening skills” are developed.

Maintain confidentiality for what they are told. Whether it is something from employees (“I have cancer”) or from other managers (“We need to lay off 10% of the department”), a leader has to maintain confidentiality in order to have trust.

Scot Herrick from Career Management for Cubicle Warriors

This can be a challenge, but I’ve seen many people in leadership positions ruin any influence they have with their employees because they violated their trust.

Communication. Work on your ability to share your ideas in verbal and written form. Be comfortable standing in front of a group. Be able to communicate with passion on subjects you know only a little about! Have solid skills in clear, concise writing.
Military leaders must be able to give clear orders, to share their vision, to inspire people. All require good communication skills. I do not know a senior military leader who cannot command a room!

Thomas Magness from Leader Business


  1. Great post – I think that these skills/character traits translate to every form of leadership from coaching to corporate america.

    I particularly liked this bit:
    I see a lot of leaders with a deficit in the area of followup. They give assignments without any clear indication of how or when success will be measured. From what I’ve seen of the military leadership model, they seem to do a great job of associating goals and assignments with measurements of success and planned followup. It is much easier to move forward when followup becomes part of the culture instead of something that only occurs when things go wrong.

    You’re 100% right. I’m recommending this post to a handful of execs I’m working with – I think with the coaching angle it will be something they will really get.

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