The Four “Core” Leadership Skills (and Why They Matter)

What are the "core" leadership skills?

Leadership development is something we talk a lot about here and in the world at large. It’s a topic that’s somewhat ethereal – a lot of people can talk about it at a surface level, but if you were to ask someone directly “what are the core skills required of a good leader?” you would likely end up with a lot of humming and hawing.

If you were to ask this question to 100 different people, you’d likely get (after the humming and hawing) close to a 100 different answers.

Although this post doesn’t won’t go super in-depth on the topic (we’re going to write a series of posts that will do just that, so stay tuned!), here is what we define as the core leadership skills needed to successfully influence others:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Relationship Development
  • Communication
  • Productivity and Personal Growth.
The Higher Leader Ladder: build these skills, and your ability to lead will soar.
The Higher Leader Ladder: build these skills, and your ability to lead will soar.


This is square one for any aspiring leader. If you don’t have any of this foundation piece in place, don’t even think about concentrating on the other three areas! That would be akin to building a castle in the sky: those things typically don’t stay up there for very long.

If you’re going to lead others, you should probably have something of a grip on leading yourself, right? As intuitively true as this seems, a lot of people miss the boat on this one.

Really knowing who you are is a more complex task than you might think. We’re talking about going well beyond your answers to the interview question, “what are your strengths and weakness?”

Understanding who you are means examining all of the thoughts, beliefs and assumptions that make up your inner world. How you behave is a reflection of how you feel, which is a reflection of how you think.

How you behave is a reflection of how you feel, which is a reflection of how you think. Click To Tweet

Getting a sense of what sparks your anger or frustration is a key element of being self-aware. Let me give you an example from my own life to illustrate what I mean.

A couple of years ago, I would routinely drive out on a stretch of highway that split into two directions. Most of the traffic went in one direction, a handful went in the other. As cars piled up on the busier side of the highway (which was also the side I was typically on), I’d often watch drivers come up from the lighter, more open side of the highway and insert themselves into the traffic column just before the fork in the road. This made me crazy!!

Now why is that? Let’s reverse engineer this situation. I went nuts and felt really angry because my thoughts around the cars cutting me and dozens of others off was something like this:

“Those selfish pricks, who do they think they are? What makes them so special?”

Now that’s not an unheard of reaction. If you’ve read my article on personas, you’d clearly see that I’m showing up as a Fighter in this situation.

What would have happened if I’d looked at the encroaching driver like this?

Man, they look like they’re in a massive rush. Maybe they’re late for a flight? Or maybe they just got a call that their partner is really sick and they’re rushing to see them in hospital…”

Compare those two thought statements. Which one has more anger in it?

Keep this in mind, the external event hasn’t changed – the only thing that’s different is my interpretation of what’s happening. Interpretations can be examined, challenged and changed, and when you do this, you are literally building self-awareness. Do this consistently throughout your life and your self-awareness will skyrocket.

One more thing to keep in mind: gaining significant self-awareness is a long-winding process and it doesn’t really have a defined endpoint. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not where you’d like to be yet, the important thing is to start and continue the journey for as long as you lead.

Relationship Development

Once we know ourselves (at least somewhat well!), it’s time to start knowing others.

John C. Maxwell is one of the world’s finest authors on leadership development. I strongly recommend checking out his work. In one of his famous books, The 5 Levels of Leadership, he discusses just how fundamental the need to build strong relationships with your reports and peers is. It’s the second level in his five-level system, and he calls it leading “by permission.”

Without earning the permission to lead another person, you are simply stuck leading “by position.” This is the first, lowest, and least effective level of leadership. It’s akin to a dictator ruling over a bunch of hopeless, disenchanted citizens (or maybe even slaves…that would be pretty sad!). The chances of someone actually creating meaningful change in the places and lives of those around them is practically zero.

What does it take to gain the permission of those you seek to influence? A relationship based on trust.

Keep this in mind, the permission needed to lead others is not an explicit one. It’s not based on the signing of a contract or agreement. It’s based on a person’s innate desire to follow someone who is going somewhere, and that is where the trust factor comes in.

When we two people deepen their trust in one another (by keeping their word and delivering on promises, for example), they deepen their relationship. When they deepen their relationship (by gaining a greater understanding of who each person really is), they usually deepen their trust.

In the end, we need our relationships with others to be strong in order for our leadership to be effective, which is what puts relationship development on this list. You can look at it this way, there’s no leadership without relationship.

"There's no leadership without relationship." Click To Tweet


As a leadership skill, communication is really a family of different, smaller skills all nestled under one umbrella.

As this is typically the most public-facing aspect of leadership, it is often a make-or-break attribute for leaders. You can have all the other core leadership skills down pat, but if you lack great communication skills then your leadership credibility can disappear almost immediately.

The areas of communication that tend to be the most important to a leader are: Mass Communication (written and spoken), Direct Feedback, Objective and Intuitive Listening (sometimes called empathic listening), Conflict Resolution, and Selling a Vision. Each of these different aspects of communication will be explored in future articles of their own.

What are the "core" leadership skills?
Good communication via great relationships is at the heart of exceptional leadership.

Communicating and inspiring a vision gets a lot of hype. I’ve met several high-powered leaders who really rave about it, and you can read article after article about its importance. I don’t disagree that it’s a fundamentally important element to great leadership.

What’s just as important is that without the rest of the communication skills family in place to support visioning, very little implementation of the vision gets done. Without implementation, there’s no action taken and no change created. The vision simply ends up as an individual’s happy dream.

Productivity and Personal Growth

We get a little bit outside of the box with these last two, which I lump together for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is because these two categories mirror what Stephen Covey wrote in his landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey explored the balance between the two main internal forces of personal effectiveness (i.e. leadership) – production (P) versus production capacity (PC).

Here’s the long story short on P vs. PC. When we are working on a task, goal or project, we are producing. When we are taking steps to rejuvenate and grow ourselves (through physical activity, meditation, socializing, learning new things, etc.), we are maintaining (if not improving) our ability to produce when we need or want to.

If we can’t stay on top of whatever leadership game we are playing, our game slides. We slide, and so do the people that count on our leadership.

The other reason for this pairing comes, once again, from John Maxwell’s The 5 Levels of Leadership. One step up from Level 2 leadership (“by permission”) is Level 3 – leading through our production. When we consistently produce great work that benefits our peers or society as a whole, we build leadership credibility with those around us. And it’s natural and almost automatic in how it occurs.

Imagine if you were an artist painting on the streets of Paris and the late Leonardo da Vinci walked by and noticed your work. You’re a very good painter and have a small but very satisfied group of patrons supporting your work. However, you are not Leonardo da Vinci by any means.

To your surprise, Leo pays you a nice compliment about your work. And then he asks if you would be willing to entertain a suggestion about improving your current painting’s shadowing. Slightly stunned by the compliment, and excited to see what this giant of art might teach you in this once-of-a-lifetime moment, you happily agree to hear his opinion on your work.

Leonardo gives you the feedback he offered you, and to your delight, you’re able to produce paintings with far more realistic shadows. Guess what just happened on a leadership level? Leonard led you to a place where you became a better artist than you were before, thanks to his kind offer (permission) and the credibility that he arrived on the scene with (production).

This, in a nutshell, is how leaders create change in the world. We need to produce something worthy of the respect of others in order to have the credibility needed to continue leading.

We need to produce something worthy of the respect of others in order to have the credibility needed to continue leading. Click To Tweet

This is just the beginning

Like the title of the post suggests, this is really just the starting point in a person’s leadership development journey. The four leadership skills outlined above are all topics that are worth deeper individual examination.

If you’re unsure of where you might be struggling the most as a leader, start with looking at yourself. Self-awareness is the first core leadership skill on this list for a reason – if you don’t know yourself, your leadership potential is limited at best.

One really great way to explore your level of self-awareness is through something called an Energy Leadership Index Assessment. It’s an incredible tool for discovering how you’re showing up in the world as a leader, and it’s something that I actually help people take. If you want to get in touch with me about it, you can do so right here.

We’re all works in progress when it comes to leadership. How does your “core” look?

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