The Five Key Ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Ef­fec­tive Lead­er­ship

Business a.m. - - LEADERSHIP & ORGANISATIONS - Deb­o­rah An­cona & Hen­rik Bres­man Deb­o­rah An­cona is the Se­ley Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Man­age­ment, a Pro­fes­sor of Or­gan­i­sa­tion Stud­ies and the Founder of the MIT Lead­er­ship Cen­ter at the MIT Sloan School of Man­age­ment. Hen­rik Bres­man is an As­so­ciate Pro

IF YOU LOOK UP THE PHRASE “lead­ers should find peo­ple who com­ple­ment them”, Google may just show you re­sults for “lead­ers should find peo­ple who com­pli­ment them”. Funny – or scary?

In our pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle, we ex­plained how dif­fi­cult it is for lead­ers to know them­selves and de­scribed how our de­vel­op­ment tool, the x360, can as­sist them in this crit­i­cal task. While lead­er­ship is about know­ing who you are, it’s also about your ac­tions and, ul­ti­mately, your im­pact. In this ar­ti­cle, we fo­cus on what ef­fec­tive lead­ers do. Specif­i­cally, our decades of re­search (in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Thomas Mal­one, Wanda Or­likowski and Peter Senge at the MIT Sloan School of Man­age­ment) have un­cov­ered the five key ca­pa­bil­i­ties of ef­fec­tive lead­ers. Form­ing the se­cond di­men­sion of the x360, they are as fol­lows:

These ca­pa­bil­i­ties span the wide-rang­ing set of skills – from the in­tel­lec­tual and in­ter­per­sonal to the conceptual and cre­ative – re­quired in to­day’s busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment. How­ever, it is im­por­tant to dis­pel the com­mon myth, which has crushed the soul of many an ex­ec­u­tive, that lead­ers should pos­sess all of these skills. No mat­ter how ex­cep­tional, it is truly rare to see a leader ex­hibit more than two or three.

Ef­fec­tive lead­ers know what is their strong suit and do not fall for the myth of the om­ni­scient leader. They do not de­lude them­selves into think­ing that the suc­cess of the whole or­gan­i­sa­tion solely rests on their shoul­ders. Or­gan­i­sa­tional suc­cess re­sides in dis­trib­uted lead­er­ship, or the fine art of find­ing and work­ing with peo­ple who can com­pen­sate for one’s weak­nesses.

The five lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­i­ties Sense­mak­ing

Are you open to new trends and in­for­ma­tion? Do you en­joy learn­ing from oth­ers? Can you cre­ate or­der from un­cer­tainty? Do you ex­per­i­ment to learn how the or­gan­i­sa­tion will re­spond? If so, sense­mak­ing may be your key strength.

Ef­fec­tive lead­ers are keenly aware of what is go­ing on in this chaotic world. They know how to keep their fin­ger on the pulse of the ex­ter­nal world. They re­alise that new, bet­ter meth­ods may come from out­siders. These lead­ers don’t just hunt for new in­for­ma­tion – they in­te­grate it into a co­he­sive frame­work that helps oth­ers un­der­stand what the next move should be.

To some ex­tent, sense­mak­ing is the op­po­site of tun­nel vi­sion. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Mi­cro­soft, an ex­cep­tion­ally vo­ra­cious reader and par­tic­i­pant in on­line cour­ses, is a great ex­am­ple of a leader gifted with sense­mak­ing.


Are you at­tuned to other peo­ple’s feel­ings and as­sump­tions? Are you ex­pert at in­flu­enc­ing and ne­go­ti­at­ing? Do you en­joy coach­ing? You may ex­cel at re­lat­ing, which is about de­vel­op­ing sup­port­ive re­la­tion­ships and ef­fec­tive ties, both within and out­side an or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Re­lat­ing can be thought of as the glue that brings peo­ple to­gether. Ever since the birth of ma­trix or­gan­i­sa­tions, lead­ers at all lev­els have had to fine-tune their per­sua­sion skills. This starts with a strong abil­ity to lis­ten to oth­ers and un­der­stand what makes them tick. Only then can these lead­ers rally sup­port for their own ideas.

In this com­plex world, com­mand-and-con­trol lead­er­ship is no longer con­sid­ered ef­fec­tive. One ex­am­ple of a per­sua­sive leader who has recog­nised the need to in­volve oth­ers to achieve trans­for­ma­tion and mean­ing with the or­gan­i­sa­tion is Eileen Fisher, founder of the

epony­mous women’s cloth­ing brand.


Do you en­joy de­vel­op­ing a vi­sion about things that in­spire you? Are you good at cre­at­ing a vi­sion that up­lifts oth­ers? If so, you may be a mas­ter of vi­sion­ing, the art of paint­ing a com­pelling pic­ture of the fu­ture.

Ef­fec­tive lead­ers of­ten use im­ages, metaphors and sto­ries to win peo­ple over. They are also able to link their vi­sion to an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s core val­ues and mis­sion, im­part­ing op­ti­mism in the process. They may not be able to fully de­scribe how the vi­sion can be achieved, but by cre­at­ing a sense of ur­gency, they can in­spire oth­ers to think up ways to ef­fect change.

While sense­mak­ing de­scribes what is, vi­sion­ing pro­duces a com­pelling image of what could be. More im­por­tantly, it dy­nam­i­cally mo­ti­vates ac­tion. Richard Bran­son of the Vir­gin Group is known for ex­cit­ing peo­ple with his vi­sion­ary new ideas for busi­nesses and the tech­nolo­gies that will get us there.


Are you a truly cre­ative yet prac­ti­cal per­son? Do you like ex­plor­ing al­ter­na­tive ways of do­ing things? Are you a lo­gis­tics ex­pert who al­ways knows how to get things done? If so, in­vent­ing may be your main call­ing card as a leader.

In­vent­ing is about de­vis­ing ways to bring a vi­sion to life, ei­ther through struc­tures or pro­cesses. In­vent­ing al­lows ab­stract ideas to ma­te­ri­alise. Lead­ers with strong in­vent­ing skills are ex­perts at re­or­gan­is­ing the way work is done, iden­ti­fy­ing key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors and mea­sur­ing progress. As the ones who “keep the trains run­ning”, they are not afraid of mak­ing tough de­ci­sions when re­al­ity de­mands it. At the same time, such lead­ers cre­ate a cul­ture of learn­ing so that both in­no­va­tion and ex­e­cu­tion oc­cur. For ex­am­ple, me­dia com­pa­nies are learn­ing how to be­come ever more ef­fi­cient in some print out­lets while trans­form­ing them­selves for a dig­i­tal age.

Build­ing cred­i­bil­ity

In the fig­ure above, build­ing cred­i­bil­ity ap­pears at the cen­tre, sur­rounded by ar­rows. This is be­cause this key ca­pa­bil­ity is both the con­di­tion and the re­sult of the other four. It is about gain­ing re­spect from oth­ers by keep­ing com­mit­ments and op­er­at­ing with a strong sense of pur­pose. Cred­i­ble lead­ers walk the talk; their ac­tions match their words.

Let us re­it­er­ate that the x360 is about self-aware­ness. The five lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­i­ties we de­scribed do not rep­re­sent a check­list of things ev­ery leader should hope – let alone ex­pect – to have. As Bruce Chizen, the former CEO of Adobe, aptly said about top lead­er­ship: “The job is sim­ply too big for any one per­son.” How­ever, ef­fec­tive lead­ers should know their strengths and weak­nesses, so they can find peo­ple who com­ple­ment them, not com­pli­ment them.

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