Beyond Integrity, Leaders Need Ability and Persuasiveness

sekulic-Vetta-Getty Images

Sekulic-Vetta-Getty Images

Last week I wrote about the importance of leaders having integrity. It’s a baseline that followers must feel they can trust their leader. But we’ve all known people of great moral fiber whom we wouldn’t follow anywhere—they don’t have other critical leadership attributes. So integrity is a foundational leadership competency, but insufficient by itself for success.

While other writers might group leadership competencies differently, in my mind, leadership requires skills in two main categories—ability and persuasiveness. In turn, ability comes in two forms—(1) knowledge of the enterprise, and (2) strategic skills and visioning.

Here’s what I mean by these categories:

1. Ability: Knowledge of the Enterprise

The first ability leaders must have is specific knowledge of their own enterprise. Most people begin their careers as tactical workers. They handle specific tasks. If they are successful in the minutiae of a role, they get bigger jobs. They begin to learn more about the organization in which they work.

To lead the organization, they need to understand how its parts fit together—its internal workings. They also need to understand the organization’s place in the world—its suppliers, its customers, its economic and political and social environment.

Over time, as employees’ jobs become broader, their roles become more integral to shaping the organization, rather than carrying out its daily work. Some people make the transition well, others do not. To be successful as a leader, this transition to systematic thinking is critical.

How, then, do leaders who move into a new organization at the top learn about the workings of their new enterprise? Quickly, one hopes. And some are successful, and others fail at this initial critical responsibility. This is why so much is written about the “first ninety days” of a new leader’s assignment.

While they are learning about their new organization, transplanted leaders must rely on their more general strategic skills and visioning, as described in the next section.

2. Ability: Strategic Skills and Visioning

Many of us remember President George H.W. Bush’s reference to “the vision thing.” The Senate bio of this President called vision “a clarity of ideas and principles that could shape public opinion and influence Congress”, and says that he was criticized for not having it.

Business and non-profit leaders need to have “the vision thing” just as much as political leaders do. They need to know where they want to take their organization. And along with vision, they need to have and idea of the strategies that are likely to get them there successfully.

As described above, leaders must see how the parts of an organization fit together and how the enterprise relates to the world around it. They must understand what is working and what isn’t in the current environment. They need to see the threats to the organization and how it must evolve to increase its effectiveness in the future.

As the TechTarget website states:

“Strategic management is the continuous planning, monitoring, analysis and assessment of all that is necessary for an organization to meet its goals and objectives.”

And defines strategic management as:

“The systematic analysis of the factors associated with customers and competitors (the external environment) and the organization itself (the internal environment) to provide the basis for maintaining optimum management practices. The objective of strategic management is to achieve better alignment of corporate policies and strategic priorities.”

So leaders who have a vision must be able to put that vision put against the real world—both inside and outside the organization—and understand how to get from here to there. These skills are applicable to any enterprise, though the details are specific to the particular organization at hand.

3. Persuasiveness

The other critical competency for leaders to have is strong communications skills, so that they can persuade people to follow them. There are many communications styles that can be effective, from charismatic to quiet, but the important thing is that others in the organization be convinced that the leader knows what he or she is talking about and has a strong sense of where the enterprise should be headed.

Leaders must be able to work with people both up and down the organization. Even executives have people to whom they are accountable, and they must be convincing to these stakeholders inside and outside the organization. Middle managers spend even more of their time working up and down the enterprise, as well as developing their strategic abilities.


I hope it is obvious that all these competencies work together. Integrity helps to persuasiveness, as do knowledge of the enterprise and a strong vision for the future. A powerful vision cannot be developed without specific knowledge of the organization.

When have you worked for a leader who had it all—integrity, ability, and persuasiveness?


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