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I have already talked about the perennial search of the hero as a leader. There is an entire leadership development industry that caters to this idea. HR calls it the Competency Model: learn these skills, add some vision, a pinch of emotional intelligence; develop them for about a year through field experience and you’ve got it.

Clearly the way out of the leader production plant is to redefine the work of leadership rather than of the qualities of the leader. The answer, like Heifetz suggests, is to focus not to so much on the qualities of the hero-leader but on the work and the context and find out what kind of thought and action is required for the situation. This way the conversation moves away from the hero-leader and focuses on how to make progress in the situations we face. I believe, like Heifetz, that is not possible to list a set of skills that are helpful to leaders in the abstract, but if I were forced to list the skills that make for the ability of orchestrating leadership at work I would include:

  • A deep knowledge of the business and ability to form a diagnostic framework based on situation and context
  • Self-knowledge, a learning attitude and great energy
  • Evidence of strong “inner work”, a clear identity and a resilient “frame of mind”
  • Personal relationship with key players and the ability to connect, hold attention, mobilize resources, and ask great questions
  • Skills in dealing with conflict, and the ability to design, host and convene important conversations.

As you can see some of these might be termed coaching skills; however, the real question is: what kind of skills does the specific work of leadership call for? Overall one ability seems to be the one that I consider an absolute must: the ability of “not knowing”. Leaders need to be great learners and need to be comfortable with not-knowing.

How do you teach not-knowing? See my piece on the subject. What could the ability of not-knowing do for your own personal situation right now?