10 Killer Leadership Skills: The Great Differentiators?

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Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company. During our return trip to the airport, I asked them to share their greatest business challenge. One of them paused for a moment, then answered with a simple word: TALENT. He went on to explain how there are many passionate, bright, technically adept candidates out there who are so close to “having it all”. Except for one thing.

They can’t write.

He then shared his belief that if someone can’t write clearly, he or she isn’t thinking clearly either. Which made me curious as to what the rest of you believe, because I’m not the best person to provide an unbiased opinion on whether writing is important.

I published my first (bad) poem when I was six years old, started at Hallmark as a greeting card writer (harder than it looks) 18 years ago, led the company’s writing and editorial disciplines for a few years (best job ever), and now spend much of my time weaving together facts, figures, and ideas to help others see a future they haven’t yet experienced. (Or is THIS the best job ever?)

I tell stories for a living, and so I obviously think it matters a great deal.

But is it the great differentiator? If not, what is? By the time you get past the “price of entry” leadership skills—drive for results, building effective teams, business acumen, organizational savvy—which skills REALLY make the best leaders stand out from the crowd?

Below are 10 Killer Leadership Skills that I believe set the high bar for greatness.

1. Empathy: Actively listening. Understanding yourself and others. Discerning a mutually beneficial path through a difficult issue. The most effective leaders are very emotionally intelligent, and make others feel not only understood and respected, but also empowered.

2. Vision: Imagining a preferred future. Projecting trends of all kinds—psychological, demographic, design, economic—and combining them with original thought to envision what could be. Whether it’s a new singular product idea or a new business, a strong vision outlines the big picture. Hard work fills it in.

3. Agility: Great leaders are able to re-examine goals and plans when new information becomes available. Sometimes what you thought was a good decision yesterday isn’t today. Great leaders can quickly change course without causing extraneous drama.

4. Story: Understanding context, creating a compelling point of view, and telling a memorable tale about it. Can you do it? Great storytellers get people to buy into their vision. Kind of how we NEED that new product after seeing a great ad for it. (Snickers, anyone? It really satisfies, you know.)

5. Strategy: Patterns. Patterns, patterns. Great leaders identify pertinent information and form related (and even seemingly unrelated) dots into opportunities. They see meaning where others don’t. And then they do something with it.

6. Inspiration: Do you inspire follow-ship? The best kind of leader is someone others willingly take personal risks for. They believe in what you stand for, and they want to be part of something greater than themselves. Great leaders appeal to the expansiveness in us!

7. Creative Problem Solving: “Thinking outside the box” is a dated term, because there are few boxes anymore. Business challenges are truly unique and our culture is so volatile. The ability to re-see a problem from a new angle, and experiment with multiple paths forward sharpens a team’s ability to uncover relevant solutions.

8. Presence: Call it poise, composure, command skills, or the “EF Hutton” effect. Whatever you call it, when great leaders walk into a room, you know it. When they speak up, people lean forward to listen. When they offer praise, others feel validated. Somehow the things they do, say, and think carry a gravity you can feel.

9. Authenticity: Great leaders are transparent in times of change, vulnerable in times of loss, and genuine at all times. They are relatable and trustworthy. Because of this, they can mobilize teams faster.

10. Courage: Great leaders ask tough questions, tell the truth, and expect the best of themselves and others. They question even their own assumptions. The bust up norms if it means securing the future of their company or their work. They are bold, and they inspire boldness in the people around them.
There you have it. Tara Jaye’s list of 10 Killer Leadership Skills, inspired by years of leader-watching, as well as years of leading…complete with a few of my own “learn the hard way” moments.

Of course, 10 is not a magic number–it’s just a clean one. What did I miss, friends? What would you add? Delete? Edit? Inquiring minds want to know.

This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Tara Jaye Frank

Tara Jaye Frank is VP of Multicultural Strategy for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank and Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.


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  • Daniel Jones

    Do you see yourself as a great leader? In my own experience great leaders are very rare, and what passes for leadership in many business organisations is really managers using power, which is necessary to get the results required, but does not create genuine followers. Personally, I would settle for being an effective leader, delivering results that matter, and a very good manager.

    Your list of skills is interesting but I wonder if, like lists of leadership traits. it will serve to confuse and will ultimately not be a predictor of success? That being said, I would like to add tenacity and humility to the list; the latter is perhaps a British cultural preference but on the other hand Jim Collins has it as a core idea in his Level 5 leadership. The problem with the list approach is that we would quickly create a very long one.

    You might consider an alternative approach and think about the relative importance of:

    – Virtues – Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence

    – Values – those enduring beliefs that cause us to act in a particular way

    – Personality Traits – those basic tendencies that drive patterns of thought, feelings and actions

    Then of course, there is vision, not to be confused with ambition. Vision is the cause to which a leader is committed and which they enlist their followers to pursue.

    Another way of thinking about leadership I find helpful is to consider:

    – what sort of person do I need to be?
    – what do I need to know?
    – what do I need to do?

    On the whole in my view the way to learn to be a leader is to focus on the know and do, whilst working on the person you need to be.

    On the question of being able to write well, it is a key skill and poor written work, whether in an email to your boss or a report to a client can be fatally damaging. In the world of social media a careless blog post can also create a very bad impression.

    By the way, your own first sentence appears to have a missing word:

    “Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company”.

    I nearly stopped reading at that first sentence and only continued in order to see if there were any more mistakes. Attention to detail is key and first impressions really do matter!

    We all make mistakes of course; In my first consulting report I presented a spreadsheet to a client in which the numbers were summed correctly horizontally, but not vertically. The client could never get over that first mistake whenever I presented to them thereafter.

    I would be very interested in your views on developing women leaders, why there are so few women in senior management positions and what women leaders can do to enlist men as followers.


    • Jo Miller

      Hi Daniel, I think you might be confusing US English with UK English. Tara is a professional writer who started out her career at Hallmark (not to mention a rock star leader, who cares deeply about developing other up-and-coming leaders.)

      • Brenda

        I have to agree with Daniel on the missing word. There should be an “of” or something between couple and gentlemen. It just doesn’t make sense otherwise. Even professional writers can make mistakes now and then.

    • ColoradoKid

      Wow, Daniel. I would say that humility is missing from your leadership resume . . .

      • Daniel Jones

        Which Leadership resume?

  • Denise Malecki

    There are may people out there to summarize and give advice on leadership. I like your clean number of 10 and while there can be debate and discussion about the list, what it means (UK or US English anyone?) the reality is it’s an easy read, reinfoces some things that we probably all know and provokes some new thinking, at least for me.
    Authenticity – that’s a great one and one where there are opinions that range from one extreme to another. I like your perspective very much and I consider myself an authentic leader. As a woman, sometimes, it is misintrepreted, especially by men.
    In all, loved this article and shared it on my LinkedIn page. THANK YOU!

    • Jo Miller

      Thanks for the note Denise. I’m so glad you enjoyed Tara’s article. It resonated with a lot of people and as of today it’s our top post of the month with over 7,300 views!

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  • Nigel Pacey

    I agree with Daniel that tenacity (or resilience) and humility are key leadership traits that are important for REAL leaders, those who influence through the way they are and the way they behave whether they are in a recognised leadership position or not. I would also add curiosity to the list because through curiosity comes both a genuine interest in other people and innovation.

  • http://www.asolopreneur.com Yogesh Shinde

    Hey Tara,

    Every organizations and family needs leader. Leaders are the people who take decisions and decisions change our lives and results that’s why decisions have to be taken on time and considering the consequences.

    The points you covered here are appropriate for improving leadership skills.

    Thanks for sharing Tara.

    Yogesh Shinde

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