April 15, 1994

My Solution Box: Qualities Every Leader Needs to Discover And Develop

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In my leadership coaching practice I often offer a “CEO tour” in which I guide clients on a short pilgrimage of prearranged meetings to glean the insights of a select group of top-floor corporate leaders. With one young rising executive, for instance, I arranged a three-day tour with five CEOs in the Midwest, and the many issues we discussed included the area of hiring, motivating, and retaining top-level employees.
One question we posed to each CEO was, “What traits are you looking for when you’re hiring senior leaders?” An interesting picture emerged from our various conversations. They weren’t necessarily looking for that natural-born genius whose awe-inspiring talent eclipsed all the rest. Yes, they wanted talent, but just as important was a broad collective of leadership qualities.
The conclusion was that leaders often must work on rounding out their born-with-it gifting by developing new capacities that come through intentional, focused discipline learning.
In other words, we all have competencies to be discovered as well as competencies to be developed.
Over the last few years I have compiled a list of capabilities required to lead at the top, in the middle, or on your way up from the bottom of any healthy organization. The more I have pondered these qualities, the more I’ve realized they are opposite sides of the same coin.
Harvey Two Face, one of Batman’s many adversaries, would insist on flipping his coin, picking the option the coin gave to him, and turning a blind eye to the other. We have come to learn that in the movie there was only one coin and it had the same thing on both sides. But the qualities required of modern leaders in the modern world require more than the one answer. A more diverse solution box is required.
I have identified seven sets of qualities. The pairings hinge on the beauty and power of the AND, not the OR. I think of them as the paradoxical parallels of modern leadership. But for our purposes here, let’s call them “The Seven Collective Qualities of a Leader.”
No one is born equally capable on both sides. We are hardwired toward one side in each set, and that’s OK. The market, however, requires that we develop at least conscious competence in all of these areas of effective leadership, even if it doesn’t come naturally. We can staff to our weaknesses, but, at the same time, it’s imperative that we make every effort to round out our own leadership skills. We cannot be content as an executive specialist.
Read through the “The Seven Collective Qualities of a Leader” and tag the side of the tandem in which you are strongest. You also might arrange them in order of what comes naturally versus what is outside your innate wiring. Then mark the quality sets that seem to be especially critical to your current work assignment. Later, we’ll examine each in greater depth.

1. Being Results Driven AND People Focused
2. Doing Friday’s Payroll AND Inventing the Future
3. Having Heart AND Using Your Head
4. Thinking Corporately AND Working Functionally
5. Leading Others AND Managing Yourself
6. Feeling Confident AND Being Humble
7. Embracing Team AND Performing Alone

These quality sets require a learning process. Most of us fall somewhere within the bounds of a matrix commonly known as the Four Stages of Competence. This matrix, built on ideas that date back as far as Socrates and Confucius, helps us better grasp the concept of multidimensional talent.

4. Unconscious Competence
2. Conscious Incompetence

3. Conscious Competence
1. Unconscious Incompetence

1. Unconscious Incompetence – If you don’t understand something or know how to do it and you don’t recognize this deficit, then welcome to “unconscious incompetence,” otherwise known as “you don’t know what you don’t know” or “blissful ignorance.” By definition, you don’t even know you’re there but at least you aren’t stressing out about it. Example: The tone-deaf American Idol contestant who thinks she can sing really well.
2. Conscious Incompetence – If you recognize that you’re deficient in understanding an idea or carrying out a task, but you’re not doing anything to address it, then welcome to “conscious incompetence.” For example, you don’t speak Russian. You know you don’t speak Russian. You’re making no effort to learn Russian. And if this becomes an issue, you’ll hire a translator.
3. Conscious Competence – If you understand or know how to do a particular skill, but executing it requires focused concentration, then welcome to “conscious competence.” If you’re great at something but it is more a product of discipline and hard work rather than innate wiring, you’re addressing “conscious competence.” A golfer, for instance, wants to achieve “muscle memory” that allows him to repeat the perfect swing. Or for many of the non-artistic types, this reflects our ability to color within the lines. We can do it, but we have to really focus and the more we do it, the better we become.
4. Unconscious Competence – When we hear someone say, “He or she was born to do that,” you are witnessing the assertion of “unconscious competence.” If you’ve mastered a skill or concept so thoroughly that it’s become second nature and you can perform it without concentrating too deeply, then welcome to “unconscious competence.” There are many examples, but let’s start with preparing of a bowl of ice cream for a late night snack. Some of us can do that with our eyes closed. But this muscle is not restricted to hobbies and pastime activities. Most people have a skill or two vital to their work that is second nature to them. Most of us had at least one teacher in our educational journey that we would say was “born to teach.”
We usually use that term to heap verbal accolades on the Michael Jordan’s of the world (at the time of this printing we are still waiting for the undisputed heir to his throne). However, I would argue that every average Joe also has at least one “unconscious competence” skill set. It might not achieve front-page status, but it is there nonetheless.

Understanding these stages and where we fall on the grid provides us with a starting point as we strive toward greater balance in our competence as a leader. We can assess and evaluate, then make a plan and work the plan so that we can achieve positive movement within this grid when it comes to the Seven Collective Qualities of a Leader.
Every aspiring leader—not some or most, but every single one—should set a minimum standard of “conscious competence” when it comes to these 14 areas of leadership skills. Why? Not because they are the latest version of a leadership hot list, but because they are essential to leading and managing the everyday affairs of any healthy enterprise.

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