The skills approach to leadership aims to identify what a person can achieve by recognizing the skills a leader exhibits and find the abilities that require improvement (Northouse, 2016). While the trait approach to leadership is useful to understand who a leader is, through the study of character traits (PSU WC, 2019, L. 2). The skills and traits are similar in the fact that they are focused solely on the leader; the main difference is a leader can consciously make an effort to develop a skill while a trait is an unconscious aspect of one’s character (PSU WC, 2019, L. 4). These two approached can be combined to understand how and why someone is an effective or ineffective leader.
In my professional career, I have had the opportunity to work a diverse group of individuals and witnessed many attempts to achieve effective leadership. I once worked in an organization with two engineering managers with two different approaches to leadership; I will take this opportunity to compare and contrast their skills, traits and discuss the impact on their followers that I have observed.
My role in this organization was to delegate the design and drafting work requested by engineering to a pool of designers, it was my responsibility to ensure clear communication and timely delivery of completed work. Before assigning work I reviewed the scope and details of the change if there was missing information I needed to follow-up with the engineer to ask questions. These engineers were broken into two groups reporting to two different engineering managers.
The managers David and Bryan had 10 years and 11 years of experience with the company respectively, closely matched in experience. David was quiet and in some aspects an introvert, while Bryan was boisterous and definitely ranked high on extraversion. Extraversion is a trait, measured by a leader’s self-confidence, drive, and decisiveness, which can greatly influence followers’ behaviors (Northouse, 2016). David’s quiet demeanor could be perceived as a lack of self-confidence. Although David was driven and wasn’t afraid to make decisions, as he took on large projects with ease and was always available to troubleshoot if there was an issue. David only spoke when some else initiated a conversation, giving him an unapproachable aloof quality. Bryan, on the other hand, was outgoing and friendly, his team radiated the same confidence assured of their purpose and what was required to get there. While David’s team felt like I was “herding cats” they were all over the place.
Openness is the tendency to be informed and be willing to change (PSU WC, 2019, L. 2). David was what I would call old school, he preferred to do things the way he had always done them; printing manufacturing drawings and marking up them by hand to communicate changes he wished a designer to complete and encouraged this behavior in his followers. Reading someone’s handwritten scribble is difficult, it is especially difficult if the markups are lost and I had repeatedly attempted to show David the benefits of downloading a pdf of a drawing marking it up electronically and then uploading it to our change management system. Bryan was quick to embrace the change and his followers did the same, communication with Bryan’s team was consistent and clear; his team also saw an improvement in turnaround time in their requests.
Katz’s three-skill approach of leadership emphasizes that, while all skills are important for leaders, their level of importance varies depending on the organizational level of the leader (Northouse, 2016). David and Bryan were at the same level within the structure of the organization, utilizing both technical and human skills. According to the PSU WC lesson commentary (2019), technical skill is the understanding of what is required to complete specific tasks; in this environment, the technical skill was the knowledge of the products and systems. David and Bryan having the same amount of experience and education were equal; it was in the human skills they differed. Human skills are the ability to work with others, creating an atmosphere where open communication is encouraged which establishes trust between leader and follower (Northouse, 2016). Here I will compare the onboarding process of new engineers by these managers. David would welcome the new engineer by showing them their desk and pairing them with a peer to mentor them for the next few weeks. Bryan similarly welcomed them, but checked in with the new engineer daily the first week and then weekly for the next couple of months. When I needed to speak with David’s new hires, they always seemed lost, they weren’t sure what they were responsible for and how to complete their tasks correctly. I would occasionally convey my observations to David hoping that he take action and step in to help these individuals, but I don’t believe he did; as his group had the highest rate of turnover. Bryan’s new hires were always up to speed quickly, with a clear understanding of what tasks they needed to complete and in what order. Bryan approached me for feedback on how these individuals were doing and if there was ever an issue, Bryan was quick to address it.
Skills and traits are valuable approaches to understand a leader. As you see, David’s team struggled due to his reserved nature, stubbornness to embrace change and his lack of communication. While Bryan’s team excelled under his leadership, through his open manner, flexibility to changes and ability to encourage others through consistent communication of objectives and goals. These approaches may not take into consideration the situations or followers, but it is useful to understand what traits and skills are working within this context so one may recognize their own character weaknesses and attempt to tailor their own abilities.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Seventh Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485: Leadership in work settings. Lesson 2: Trait Approach. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/02_lesson/printlesson.html
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485: Leadership in work settings. Lesson 4: Skills Approach. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/04_lesson/printlesson.html