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Compelling People: The hidden qualities that make us influential (Hudson Street Press)
Compelling People: The hidden qualities that make us influential (Hudson Street Press)

Book Excerpt

Six key skills leaders need Add to ...

This is an excerpt from Compelling People by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut., 2013.

When we consider how organizations select leaders, there is often an imbalance between strength and warmth. Not only are the people involved in the selection process typically most concerned about choosing someone who can get things done; they are likely to have seen only the sunniest side of the subordinates they are considering promoting. In a hierarchy, everyone is taught to kiss up to those above them, but not everyone is so nice to those below. So warmth often gets shortchanged or is undervalued.

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Yet when we look at the skills good leaders need, it is clear that warmth and strength both count. These are the people we admire as leaders. As you may have guessed, there is more to say about the connection between strength and warmth and leadership.

There are any number of competing models of leadership, including transactional, transformational, adaptive, and charismatic, to name just a few. One way to get a grip on all of these was developed by Matt’s old boss, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye. He surveyed the leadership studies landscape and then used an existing study of presidential leadership to create a taxonomy of six principal leadership skills: emotional intelligence, communications, vision, organizational skills, Machiavellian political skills, and contextual intelligence.

Emotional intelligence enables leaders to understand themselves and others in a way that allows them to move people to action. Nye notes that emotional intelligence has two components: mastery of oneself and outreach to others. Self-mastery projects strength. Recall our discussion of strong nonverbal cues and the importance of poise, which shows control of your body in space. The same is true when you demonstrate control in your use of language.

Outreach to others, on the other hand, is about warmth. The ability to get in the circle, for instance, requires the emotional intelligence to read your audience before making an appeal to shared concerns or interests. Also remember the biological tension between strength and warmth. Testosterone inhibits oxytocin, making it difficult for strong leaders to feel and project empathy. At the same time, not being too warm may make strong leaders better judges of character; unusually warm people can tend to suffer from the “rose-colored glasses” syndrome, in which their sympathies override warning signals about people who do not share their best interests.

Communications can project both strength and warmth. The skill of being an effective communicator is an aspect of a leader’s strength, while the ability to connect with stakeholders is an exercise in warmth. Nye points out that leaders have to communicate with a variety of internal and external audiences in a variety of settings – large audiences, small groups, one-on-one, and via words alone – all of which require slightly different skills.

Vision is a leader’s way of describing the present and articulating an idea for how to arrive at a (presumably better) future state. Noel Tichy, who headed GE’s famous leadership institute in Crotonville, N.Y., once wrote that it is a leader’s responsibility to define reality. Developing a vision is the act of defining the present and future reality. The ability to create a compelling vision is a powerful way to establish a sense of shared interests that we equate with warmth. While conveying a vision is a way of projecting warmth, great visionaries are not always warm people. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs both had tremendous visions for the future of their respective industries, but neither would have been called cuddly.

Organizational skills allow leaders to understand, design, and implement systems that direct the resources needed to keep an organization running effectively. The other half of Tichy’s definition of leadership is the ability to mobilize resources. Some of these fall under traditional definitions of management – taking charge of personnel, schedules, and budgets to meet defined goals or objectives – while others speak to adaptive skills, such as moving an organization through a period of change. Achieving these ends may require varying degrees of warmth when the resources being mobilized are people, but the net effect of having superb organizational skills is one of strength.

Machiavellian political skills are perhaps the most easily identifiable manifestation of strength. This is the side of strength that makes the all-warmth crowd queasy. It is the ability to size up others for wheeling and dealing in what Nye calls “hard power” situations that require either incentives or coercion, carrots or sticks. Knowing how much support you have before the votes are counted and how much arm-twisting you can engage in without causing future problems is a skill that projects strength. Accordingly, we view people who prioritize this skill at the expense of others as cold and bloodless.

Contextual intelligence is the ability to read a situation and determine an appropriate approach to the leadership challenge that it poses. As Nye points out, this requires aptitude in dealing with organizational culture (warmth), power politics (strength), the needs of people within an organization (warmth), and information flows (strength). Nobody is capable of doing this well in all circumstances. History is replete with examples of leaders who thrived in one setting and failed to adapt when the context shifted.

All these skills are essential for tackling significant leadership challenges, though their relative weight and importance depends on the setting. Leading people ultimately demands satisfying two primary needs for the group: projecting enough strength to protect it from threats and keep it on track, and projecting enough warmth to recruit and retain others who will help realize the group’s vision.

Leadership resides in the ongoing balancing act between strength and warmth, and leaders need to project both actively in the presence of people who work for them. The dynamics that come with maintaining that balance – the halo effect and the hydraulics – apply to leaders as much as anyone, though positional authority confers status that can help mitigate some of the penalties associated with being the boss. The most admired leaders are the ones who project consistently high levels of strength and warmth and have the contextual intelligence to know how to use it. We remember them long after they exit the stage.

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