There Is No Such Thing as Leadership Skills

“Leadership Skills! Come buy your leadership skills here! AI-proof/ML-enabled/McK-sanctioned/visionary-du-jour-inspired packaged for insta-leadership right here!”

Let’s face it, you can’t walk the corridors of Canary Wharf or the trendy Barbados new ad-hoc WeWorks without being lured by some skills-seller and their hypnotizing promises of a safe and gainfully employed feature if you only do X.

That X will improve your leadership by granting you the very special skills you need in today’s work environment. I should be the first to agree as I’ve written the book on TechLedCultures (literally:) and I’ve been on and on about how humans at work need to humanize and therefore they need to be consistent and rewarded for it hence they need to have more goodwill, more heart, more purpose, view of impact, more joy and flow and EQ to remain competitive. All those are skills, right?!?


What? What are they then?

Attitude. (More about my new seemingly unPC stance below and in the weeks to come on all newsletters so prepare to hate me)

Ok, I “hear” you roll your eyes and think this is probably click-bait, (which, I assure you, it is not!) Then what are the skills that leadership needs today?


No skills! This isn’t to decimate entire industries who sell “skillz” but to be super frank (non sequitur but let’s all try not to use “brutally honest” anymore as if the association between brutality and honesty is to be normalized because it isn’t) as it’s not skills we have to hire for but, politically incorrect drum roll…. Attitude and goodwill.

You “heard” me right. Eff the skills. What leadership skills? I don’t think we ever needed any or that any good leader presently has any of those old-school mythical ones they are having to pay certificate-tax-to-the-big-4s to replace. Let’s examine some of the TO DOs of a leader.

First and foremost: Listen to your people. Like forealz, not lip service in a weekly progress report. What skill is that? Listening to your own humans and being a human back to them? Your teammates, your humans, your “trolls”! Not only do you have to listen to them but you WANT to listen to them. Oh wait, in fact, whilst not a skill, the act of genuinely listening is comprised of several actions and perchance today’s leadership cohort is not capable of deconstructing the components (or, more likely and heartbreakingly, they are so burned out they are looking for any quick fix they can get in these predatory courses of new “skills”) so let me see if I can help:

  1. Ask first. Preferably with genuine attention and empathy and while communicating care and being sensitive and yet not compromising on depth and honesty, but asking is the paramount part, the dressing and manner of it matter less. So what skill does the average manager need so that they can accomplish this part of the task? Time management perhaps. A weekly reminder to have 1-on-1s with all their direct reports and ask questions, both personal and professional, and not the latter only. This last part is actually crucially. So in “T is for Teams” we say “Ask as if you’ve known them for years, got them this job, and want to keep them as life would be horrid without this team member around
  2. Listen. Really Listen. Shutting up to listen to others isn’t a skill, it’s inaction -and everyone in the corporate world is already super upskilled in doing nothing while looking very busy indeed so that one ought to be easy :)- but for both parts to get anything out of the listening, the more empathy that you can muster the better. As a leader here’s a tip if not a skill that we suggest in “T is for Teams” - “Perform regular empathy checks on yourself: are you fatigued? Tired of still caring that one colleague’s partner is abusing them, another’s kid is having surgery and their parents are passing? Then don’t talk to your people till you care again. They’ll feel if your heart is not breaking in the way they would expect it to.
  3. Feedback and offer practical help. First off here’s one minuscule semblance of a skill - communicate more effectively and with empathy - feeding back that you are hearing and taking in the information by asking often and repeating what you understood. Clarity is paramount at work every day but never more than when we need emotional support which still feels so eerie to require in the workplace. But even this one doesn’t need much teaching, simply try hard to think of an equivalent situation in your life and put yourself in their shoes. As for offering practical help in “T is for Teams” we advise “[…]don’t rely on HR, as a team leader, find out what your enterprise has that is genuinely helpful - grants, good solid info, representation, therapy, etc and have that ready when you talk to your direct reports to offer if it’s a private matter. If the help they need, is about removing a work blocker, then even more so, make sure you hide all the “Business Prevention” departments from them whilst you remove what is stopping them from doing the work you need.”

Talking to your people is not the end-all-be-all but it sure is a start and “vulnerability” or “flexibility” and even “EQ” (which I know is being “taught” in courses as we sell one at as well, are not a plan or a start but a series of empty words that are not moving us ahead if they are not followed by solid everyday work afterward that will make us into the competitive humans who know how to humanize and use AI. We need so much more. We need to change the rhetorics fast, the new generation won’t wait for us to still say “retention” “employee engagement” and “leadership development” when they want to burn for purpose, change the world, and have fun doing it whilst working for cool bosses who know the “skills” are those of humanizing and being a decent human being themselves.

Come hear me rant about this topic and more on all the editions of our podcasts and the inaugural one of NeuroSpicyAtWork too and I hope you have a week ahead surrounded by unskilled but deeply caring, effective, and human bosses, y’all!

Related: 10 Things You Need To Create a People-First Culture Through Human Work