15 Key Leadership Competencies HR Professionals Should Know

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15 Key Leadership Competencies HR Professionals Should Know

Developing a diverse leadership bench that’s filled with the right (mid-level) leaders at all times is one of the top priorities for HR this year. In this article, we’ll share 15 key leadership competencies every HR professional should know and how to develop them within their workforce.

What are leadership competencies?
Types of leadership competencies
Competencies for leading the organization
Competencies for leading others
Competencies for leading yourself
How to develop leadership competencies
On a final note

What are leadership competencies?

Leadership competencies are a specific combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) that represent effective leadership within an organization (Hollenbeck, McCall, & Silzer, 2006).

What we can deduct from this definition is that there isn’t one unique set of leadership competencies that works across all industries and companies. In fact, different leadership positions within a single organization may require different sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities.  

Therefore, a lot of organizations work with a leadership competency framework, a collection of competencies they have identified as key for success and that’s relevant for their leaders and their organization. The development of these competencies is crucial for effective succession planning.

Types of leadership competencies

There are, however, certain skills and competencies that are essential for every leader, regardless of the industry and company they are in.

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Being able to understand and spot these leadership competencies enables HR to make better-informed decisions when it comes to hiring, developing, and promoting leaders.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) distinguishes three competency categories, namely:

  • Competencies for leading the organization
  • Competencies for leading others
  • Competencies for leading the self

Other categorizations are possible too. Deloitte, for instance, talks about developable capabilities – learned factors that change over time and reflect what a leader can do, and leadership potential – innate factors which are hard(er) to develop, stable over time, and reflect how a person is.

In this article, we’ll stick with the categories presented by SHRM. Please note that the below list of leadership competencies isn’t exhaustive and that one competency can fit in more than one category.

Types of leadership competencies

Competencies for leading the organization

1. Social Intelligence (SI)

According to Psychology Today, social intelligence is one of the best predictors of effective leadership and therefore one of the top leadership competencies. Social intelligence is about our capacity to understand different social situations and dynamics. It also comprises our ability to operate effectively in these various social situations.

2. Conflict management

This is a leadership competency that fits both this category as well as the ‘competencies for leading others’ category. It involves helping others in the organization, whether they are fellow leaders or people in your team, in avoiding or resolving interpersonal conflicts.

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Conflict management is linked to something that organizational theorist Fons Trompenaars calls the reconciliation competency. Reconciliation is, as Trompenaars puts it, ‘the art of combining’. Rather than making a choice between two seemingly opposite opinions, or asking people to compromise, you find a way to combine them.

3. Decision-making

Decision-making is one of the key leadership competencies because it’s at the core of a leader’s activities. A good leader knows when to make a decision by themselves, when to consult their team members or peers and get their opinion on a certain matter, and, perhaps most importantly, when to take a step back and let others decide.

4. Sharing a compelling vision

The company’s vision – what your organization wants to be at some point in the future based on its goals and aspirations – is an important reason why people want to (continue to) work for you.  

Leaders need to be able to share the company’s vision in a compelling way. It should get both other people in the organization as well as candidates behind it.

Check out this Learning Bite on leadership competencies you need to be a successful HR Leader!

5. Change management

Organizations change constantly. Some of these changes are relatively small, while others take place over a longer period of time. A good example of this are the automation and/or digitization processes many organizations are going through right now. 

Effective leaders know how to prepare, support, and guide their people through these various organizational changes.

Competencies for leading others

6. Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills are also referred to as people skills or soft skills. Examples include, among others, active listening, giving and receiving feedback, (non) verbal communication, problem-solving skills, and teamwork.

7. Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Emotional intelligence is about our ability to understand people’s emotions and emotional situations. It’s also about our capacity to understand and manage our own emotions.  

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Emotional intelligence is made up of several components;

  • Self-awareness – Knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Self-regulation – Being able to manage our own emotions.
  • Motivation – People with high emotional intelligence usually also are highly motivated.
  • Empathy – People with empathy and compassion tend to connect better with others.
  • Social skills – The social skills of emotionally intelligent people show they genuinely care for and respect others.  

8. Being a good coach & being trustworthy

Leaders need to be many different things to many different people. One of them is being a good coach, not just for those in their team but also for their peers

This means, for example, knowing when to (gently) push someone to go outside their comfort zone, giving useful feedback when necessary, and helping people find their personal vision.  

A word on trustworthiness is in order here, not just because trust is crucial for a successful coaching relationship. It’s also vital for leaders in building and maintaining strong relationships with the people they manage.

In the video below, Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei explains what the three component parts of trust are:

  • Being authentic – Put (very) simply this means be yourself, at all times.
  • Having rigor in your logic – This is about ensuring the quality of our logic and our ability to communicate it.
  • Empathy – Aiming our empathy directly towards the people we are interacting with, really listening to them and immersing ourselves in their perspectives.

You can watch Frances’ eye-opening talk about building and rebuilding trust in the video below (We highly recommend watching it!):


9. Inclusiveness

Good leaders know how to create a work environment in which everybody feels welcome. They make sure that every employee is treated equally and respectfully, has the same opportunities and resources, and can participate and thrive. In other words: good leaders are inclusive.

According to research done by Harvard Business Review, inclusive leaders share the following 6 traits:

  • A visible commitment – To diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable, and make D&I a personal priority.
  • Humility – They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.
  • Awareness of bias – They show awareness of personal blind spots, as well as flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure a meritocracy.
  • Curiosity about others – They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.
  • Cultural intelligence – They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  • Effective collaboration – They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

10. People management

When it comes to leading others, good people management is crucial. Depending on the leadership level, this involves the process of overseeing the training, development, motivation, and day to day management of employees.

Good leaders give their teams the 5 c’s of people management: clarity, context, consistency, courage, and commitment.

Competencies for leading yourself

11. (Learning) Agility

If there’s one thing we learned from 2020, it’s how important it is to be able to quickly adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. This goes for everyone in the workforce, but especially for leaders as they need to support and guide others – and the organization – through these sometimes challenging times. As such, agile leaders aren’t afraid of change; on the contrary, they embrace it.

Good leaders also have the ability to continually learn, unlearn, and relearn, also referred to as learning agility. They know how important it is to keep developing, growing, and using new strategies to tackle the increasingly complex problems they face in their organizations.

12. Industry knowledge/expertise

Yes, people change jobs, companies, and industries more often than they did ten years ago. And yes, developments in some areas go so rapidly that it might seem impossible to stay on top of them with everything else leaders have on their to-do lists.

Effective leaders, however, know that it’s still essential to develop a certain expertise in the area and company they’re leading in.

13. Managing yourself

This goes for your workload, emotions, schedule, etc. If you’re leading others, you need to be able to manage yourself – in the broadest sense of the term – first. Everyone has their own way of doing this, of course, but being well-organized, planning ahead, and prioritizing are key elements here.

14. Courage

Leaders often need to make decisions. Not every decision will be an easy one and sometimes deciding to do something – or not – means taking a (big) risk. That requires courage.

Courage also is about standing by your values and people and defending them in front of others when necessary.

15. Organizational citizenship behavior

Put simply, organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) is a term that’s used to describe all the positive and constructive employee actions and behaviors that aren’t part of their formal job description. It’s anything that employees do, out of their own free will, that supports their colleagues and benefits the organization as a whole.

The five most common types of OCB are:

  • Altruism – This occurs when an employee helps or assists another employee without expecting anything in return.  
  • Courtesy – This is polite and considerate behavior towards other people. Examples of courtesy at work include saying good morning, asking a co-worker how their holiday was, how their kids are doing, how a project they’re currently working on is going, etc.
  • Sportsmanship – This is about being able to deal with situations that don’t go as planned and to not demonstrate negative behavior when that happens.
  • Conscientiousness – In a work setting, this means that employees don’t just show up on time and stick to deadlines, but that they, for instance, also plan ahead before they go on holiday so that their colleagues won’t be drowning in a big workload.
  • Civic virtue – This is about how an employee supports their company when they’re not in an official capacity. Civic virtue can be demonstrated by employees signing up for business events such as fundraisers, or running a (semi) marathon for a charity with a team of co-workers

Leaders need to set a good example to inspire others. One way of doing so is by demonstrating the OCB they would like to see in others themselves.

How to develop leadership competencies?

The short answer here is: by creating and implementing a leadership development plan. To explain that process properly, however, we would need to write another article (which we will be doing soon, so watch this space). In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of how to develop some of the competencies listed above:

  • Leadership competencies for leading the organizationPeer mentoring and coaching can be a good option here, in combination with, for example, more formal training on topics such as conflict management and change management.
  • Leadership competencies for leading others – Here too, coaching can be very useful, especially for things like giving and receiving feedback, active listening, and (non) verbal communication. Depending on the leadership level, people management training is also important.
  • Leadership competencies for leading yourself – As for the industry/company expertise, leaders can learn a lot about the company, their product, and their people by themselves and from others within the organization. To improve their planning and time-management skills, they can follow a course and/or workshop.

On a final note

Leadership competencies depend on the industry, company, and even a leader’s level within the organization. For HR, it’s important to understand what competencies are necessary for leadership success in their organization so they can make better decisions when it comes to hiring, developing, and promoting leaders. What leadership competencies are important in your organization? Did we list them? If not, feel free to share them with us!

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What are leadership competencies?

Leadership competencies are a specific combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) that represent effective leadership within an organization.

What types of leadership competencies are there?

There are various categorizations possible, but the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) distinghuises the following 3 categories: leadership competencies for the organiztion, leadership competencies for others, and leadership competencies for the self.

What are examples of key leadership competencies?

Key leadership competencies include social intelligence, conflict management, interpersonal skills, (learning) agility, decision-making, being a good coach, emotional intelligence, industry expertise, change management, sharing a compelling vision, courage, managing yourself, inclusiveness, organizational citizenship behavior, and people management.

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