Skills Theory

What Is The Skills Theory of Leadership?

The skills theory grew from the obvious flaw in the trait approach; traits are relatively fixed. This meant that trait theory was not particularly useful for developing new leaders who laced those traits. Skills theorists sought to discover the skills and abilities that made leaders effective. Similar to trait theory, skills theories are leader-centric, and focused on what characteristics about leaders make them effective. The two primary theories to develop from a skills approach were Katz’s three-skill approach and Mumford’s skills model of leadership.

The three-skill approach argued that effective leadership required three skills: technical, human, and conceptual skills. Technical skill refers to proficiency in a specific activity or type of work. Human skill refers to being able to work with people and conceptual skill refers to the ability to work with broad concepts and ideas. The three-skill approach asserted that, while all skills were important for leaders, their level of importance varies depending on the organizational level of leaders. As leaders move through the levels of the organization (from lower to upper), skill importance moves from technical to human to conceptual.

More complex than the three-skill approach, the skills model of leadership outlined five components of effective leadership: competencies, individual attributes, leadership outcomes, career experiences, and environmental influences. Effective leadership is dependent on how leader competencies are affected by the leader’s attributes, experiences, and the environment.

Perhaps the most useful strength of skill theory is that it places effective leadership performance on learned (and learnable) skills rather than on traits. In this way, leadership is available to anyone. While it is not a trait approach outright, certain innate abilities (motivation and cognitive ability, for example) are still included in the model. Skills theories are also weak in their predictive ability, failing to explain how a person’s competencies lead to effective leadership. Finally, the majority of data used to construct the skills model was taken from the military, meaning its applicability to general organizations is questionable.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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