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5 Universal Leadership Skills

What are the most important skills in a leadership role?

Recently, I gave a presentation to a network of small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs covering this list of five universal leadership skills.

This list is based on interviews and discussions with leaders from a variety of backgrounds including current and former CEO's, entrepreneurs, Chiefs of Staff, and executives. These five skills were indeed universal and were brought up regardless of industry or background in response to the question, "What are the most important skills in a leadership role?"

This list is a good starting point for any current or future leader. What’s more, each of these skills can be learned, practiced, and improved through intentional effort.

Skill 1 – Awareness

Awareness is the cornerstone skill. By creating and expanding your awareness around your personal, professional, or career goals you can create better strategies for how to get there, and how to overcome the obstacles you encounter along the way.

Awareness acts like a compass. It keeps you oriented while you survey and adapt to a complex and changing landscape. You have to begin with the end in mind. What is the goal? From there, you work to expand and broaden your awareness into other key areas in order to develop and refine your strategy for success.

Similarly, awareness of your strengths will give you the opportunity to put them to productive use toward those goals. Awareness of your weakness will allow you to find ways minimize their impact, or eliminate them all together.

How do you create more awareness? A beginner’s mindset is a good start. This requires you to be curious and to ask lots of questions. Focus on what you don't know. Seek out advice and insight from key advisors. Create a framework to rigorously test your strategies.

Finally, create teams and systems that will help you build and expand your awareness. Turning this behavior into a habit will create a strong foundation for the other four skills as well.

Skill 2 – Communication

Ascent coaches leaders to communicate more effectively
Communication is at the heart of problem-solving.

Skill 2 has two sub parts.

First, is listening. Great leaders are very intentional listeners. They are fully present in the moment so that they can receive all of the communication coming their way. This means being attuned to not only the words, but also to body language and other nonverbal communication.

Listening is key for people to feel seen, heard, and understood. This in turn builds the trust and rapport needed for team members to bring you vital information in a timely manner. A virtuous cycle is created because team members and leadership are engaged in timely, open communication with a focus on understanding.

Consequently, this culture of listening for understanding fosters greater awareness.

Speaking is secondary to listening but still vital for leadership success. You must be able to clearly and effectively communicate goals, objectives, strategies, feedback, and more to those under your charge.

This means being comfortable in one-on-one feedback situations as well as public speaking. The goal should be to make the point clearly, succinctly, and without any unnecessary fluff. To do this though, you must be crystal clear on what the point is -- in other words, aware.

Skill 3 – "Old School" Work Ethic

There is very little to say on this one. Leaders get things done. Period.

They show up every day and lead by example.

An old-school work ethic is based on purpose and discipline. Purpose and discipline provide the fuel for action when motivation is absent, and rest assured it will be absent at some point.

Once you’re clear on where you’re going and why, leadership is about creating your plan to get there and getting to work.

Skill 4 – Organization and Time Management

Let’s modify the statement from Skill 3 just a bit. Leaders get things done on time and don’t allow things to slip through the cracks.

Organization and time management are rooted in the effective scheduling of your priorities. In a leadership role this means being aware of the broad organizational goals and effectively managing the resources available to achieve those goals.

Treat time like any other resource - cash, inventory, etcetera - to "manage" your time better. This also means understanding how it is being used and why, and creating a metric to determine how you can use that resource even more effectively.

This also means examining what items can be delegated or eliminated from your schedule. Addition by subtraction is sometimes the best way forward.

Skill 5 – Emotional Intelligence

The EQ-i 2.0 Emotional intelligence assessment model
Ascent offers the EQ-i 2.0 Assessment

Anyone can succeed when the stakes are low and the pressure is off.

When emotions are running hot and the stakes are high though, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) becomes essential. EQ is in many ways the amalgamation of Skills 1 through 4, while also serving as their foundation.

EQ is how leaders use and process emotional information effectively. It is also directly related to overall performance and well-being (see image).

EQ is how leaders remain cool and optimistic under intense pressure. EQ is how they navigate difficult situations and conversations, and inspire the best in their teams.

EQ is what separates good task managers from high-impact leaders.

As leaders work on Skills 1-4, they naturally enhance their EQ at the same time creating a powerful virtuous cycle of refinement and improvement at both the individual and organizational levels.


Build and hone these 5 skills and you’ll create a very solid foundation for leadership in any industry.

Whether as a CEO, Chief of Staff, or other executive, these five skills are essential regardless of your role or industry and will directly impact your success.

For more on how you can develop these skills, check out our EQ-i 2.0 and Executive Coaching services.

About the Author:

Matt Beckmann is the Founder & Managing Director of Ascent Consultants. In addition to experience as a former Chief of Staff to the Missouri Auditor and as a Corporate Vice President and General Counsel, he has advanced training and certifications in law, business, and executive coaching. His blog content, inspired by his deep passion for unlocking his reader's best potential, consistently equips business owners and individuals with the knowledge and resources to overcome obstacles that may be hindering growth.

Ascent Consultants provides business and strategy consulting, executive and leadership coaching, and leadership assessments. By converting client growth goals into an actionable "game plan," we help companies and individuals unlock their full potential.

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