Ten Hidden Leadership Skills and Why They Matter

With thousands of books on leadership, each with their own set of competencies and skills, you would think that everything that could be covered is covered.

Yet there are some leadership skills that are not so obvious. These skills are hidden and often demonstrated by introverts. That may be why you haven’t really noticed or identified them as distinct and valuable leadership skills. Introverts tend to remain in the background and hidden in a culture that overvalues extroversion. Yet they contribute immensely to finding solutions to stubborn problems.

I’ve seen these skills also in excellent facilitators. These are skills that are applied to hosting breakthrough conversations that include diverse perspectives without an attachment to the one and only answer. It’s important that your organization identifies and supports those who can facilitate these conversations and demonstrate these skills. To help you identify them, I’m sharing them here with a description and why they matter.

The Ten Hidden Leadership Skills

Asking the right question. Groups often enter into problem-solving mode without checking their assumptions. They ask the obvious question without inquiring deeply into whether they are addressing the cause or effect of the problem.

It’s said that Einstein was asked: “If you have one hour to save the world, how would you spend that hour?” He replied, “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.” When we solve the wrong problem we waste time, energy, effort and it becomes demoralizing. Use inquiry to get to the cause first and make sure you are solving the real problem.

Action learning is an example of a facilitation process based on asking insightful questions and practicing reflective listening. Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. 

Distill and synthesize informationThe amount of information and data created daily on the Internet is staggering! One report shows 205 billion emails are sent each day in 2015, and by 2019 that number will increase to 20% to 246 Billion emails each day! Those who can distill and synthesize information quickly are poised to succeed in an increasingly complex world. Computers can easily take massive amounts of information in and break it down to usable pieces of data but not everything lends itself to algorithms, especially when dealing with human beings and their thoughts, feelings and the creative process.

Notice patterns and themes in disparate pieces of information. Along the same lines there are people (mostly creative or artistic ones) that can look at a puzzle and quickly see how the pieces fit together. In a mass of chaos they can bring elements together into patterns that make that information usable. To see hidden patterns and themes allows someone to also see new possibilities for problems that may be too complex to dissect without seeing how all the pieces fit together.

Break down problems. Another nuance of these skills is the ability to break down problems into actionable pieces. Some of today’s most significant problems are also overwhelming. Those who are able to break these problems down and solve them one at a time will provide the forward movement to solve large, global problems (think climate change, clean water, poverty, etc.)

“I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” ~ Thomas Edison

Be comfortable with failure. Without risking failure it’s difficult to create something new. Inherent in creation is the unknown and most people fear the unknown. Not only is a tolerance of failure necessary but a shift in how you engage failure is required to make it part of the creation process. When leaders shift from failure as an end result to failure as part of the creative process, the ability to recover and to learn grows and innovation increases.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” ~ Carl Sagan

Use your imagination. We are and will be solving global problems that we could never have imagined would exist. Knowledge will take you only so far. Imagination takes you further. Imagination looks beyond our historical success strategies and asks “What if?” Imagination is the dream that has yet to materialize but powers a vision so you do the impossible to make it manifest.

Listen to what is NOT being said. In emotionally intelligent leaders, empathy is a competency that generates trust and connection. Leaders who can listen to the emotional content of words, who notice the congruence or incongruence between words and the body and who can focus their listening on the person speaking not on their response, are poised to create teams that feel safe in expressing their feelings as well as their thoughts. No one really leaves his or her emotions at the door. Engaging the emotional domain through empathy and deep listening is an undervalued skill compared to the cultural value of advocacy and debate.

Be present and practice restraint. I have seen some clients progress from feeling a need to contribute every thought they have to simply being present to a discussion. They take it all in then engage with a simple, focused question or statement that turns the conversation on its head because of its clarity. This is what I mean by restraint. It’s the ability to stay present to what is going on without an attachment to being part of the conversation because of your need to be heard.

Introverts tend to listen and process information differently and are often criticized because of their apparent non-engagement. They are most certainly engaged, but not in the same way. I’m sure you know of someone who is perceived as quiet but when he or she speaks, it is with conviction and value. Staying present to the conversation and speaking when it matters is more powerful than speaking frequently with little substance.

Know how to move people in time. I notice that in difficult conversations groups remain stuck in the problem or the event that occurred. It’s as if they can’t let it go and move forward. A hidden skill is the ability to move people through time, from the past when the event occurred, to the present where it is analyzed and discussed, to the future where a new possibility or aspiration is presented as a focus to move forward. This movement honors all three phases of an event and it’s stakeholders but does not allow the group to remain stuck in the problem and the negative feelings that are generated. By providing a vision of an aspirational state the leader can support the creation of a new possibility and use what had been negative as fodder for a breakthrough or an innovation.

“Suppose we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our view or conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture? ” ~ David Bohm

Balance divergent and convergent conversations. A divergent conversation does not seek one answer. It is the predecessor to the convergent conversation where ideas are vetted. It is an invitation to share thoughts, feelings and ideas in service of a question or to find a solution. By keeping the conversation open all ideas are accepted. The vetting process comes later when there is an explicit statement that the ideas generated will be funneled through some criteria and vetted to determine the most viable options.

Bohmian Dialogue is my favorite divergent conversation. I enlist it for difficult conversations because it embraces multiple perspectives in a non-judgmental manner, honors feelings and experiences and has a powerful storytelling telling element that creates connection even when there is conflict. It is a way of tapping the collective intelligence of a group, what William Isaacs calls “the art of thinking together”.


Although you may understand the value in these skills, they have not been explicitly called out as “leadership skills” because they are subtle and overshadowed by more obvious competencies.

“I believe we can change the world if we start talking to one another again”. ~ Margaret Wheatley

In a world where artificial intelligence, algorithms and robots are on the horizon and where thousands of leadership and OD frameworks and models are available, there is still no replacement for the learning that comes from a connection between human beings when we are in deep profound conversations.  

The skills of presence and of listening are receptive skills and ones that are enhanced by self-knowledge, self-awareness and empathy.

From this receptive orientation we can be observers of our Self and the world around us.

From this perspective new possibilities are able to emerge.

We are in a time of emergence. This is not a time of bulldozing through our most significant issues. Conversation, connection and the human element are the foundation on which purposeful action can occur to solve our global problems. 

As you look at your leaders, don’t overlook the quiet ones, the ones that are listening and observing. If you do, you may miss out on the people with the imagination and courage to see into the unknown and bring others along towards a vision of a more positive future.


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© 2017 Alicia M. Rodriguez. Sophia Associates, Inc.www.sophiaassociatesinc.com  I work with executive women, visionary leaders and creative and social entrepreneurs who struggle with managing their resiliency in the face of today's complexity and fast pace and instead want to lead more purposefully while maintaining their health, wellbeing and inspiration.

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