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The 5 executive leadership skills that matter most

From empowerment to intellectual humility, these executive leadership skills are invaluable to an organization.
executive leadership skills
Credit: Blake Cale

Executive leadership skills are in high demand. According to a recent Gartner survey, only 41% of employees believe that senior leaders act in their best interest. And alarmingly, 33% of employees have said they don’t trust their CEO. 

Leaders face many challenges in today’s business world, such as managing constant and rapid change, engaging employees that work remotely, and creating an environment of respect and belonging. Oftentimes their own skills development takes a backseat, but the list below can serve as a starting point for organizations looking to level up their leaders. 

5 key executive leadership skills

The best way to approach the development of executive leadership skills is to assess individual leaders in the necessary competencies and then design content that meets those specific skill gaps. Keeping this in mind, the five skills outlined here are often found to be lacking – even in seasoned leaders. 

Intellectual humility

Sometimes it’s difficult for executive leaders to acknowledge or admit that they may be incorrect in their thoughts and opinions. But for personal and organizational growth to flourish, they must be willing to consider others’ ideas with an open mind. This requires a sincere willingness to learn. 

Robert Kaplan, the author of What You Really Need to Lead, shares, “The most significant reason I see that leaders fail is not because they’re not smart enough or they don’t have the skills; it’s that they are not open to learning.” For more about how leaders can become isolated in their thinking, watch the video from Kaplan below. 


Next on our list of the top executive leadership skills is empowerment. A SHRM article states, “Employee empowerment can have a significant impact on employee satisfaction, productivity and engagement. The hallmark of this approach is a willingness among leaders and managers to share power with their teams in order to achieve better results.” 

Leaders can learn to empower others by identifying their team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and individual passions. With this knowledge, they can masterfully delegate assignments to fit the skills and passions of each team member. When employees feel empowered in this way, they’re more likely to meet and exceed goals, and the quality of their work increases. 

Psychological safety

When leaders create psychological safety, they provide an environment where it’s okay for employees to make mistakes. Workers at all levels must know that they won’t be punished for trying and failing, but that failures can actually be valuable when they’re learned from. 

Employees should feel safe to voice their opinions and ask questions, without the fear of being ridiculed.

Creating this sort of culture starts at the top, when executive leaders make it known that mistakes are just part of running a business and in fact, as the famous football coach Vince Lombardi said – “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.” 

Employees should feel safe to voice their opinions and ask questions, without the fear of being ridiculed. Executive coach and author Alisa Cohn says giving praise can help leaders remove this fear. Cohn explains more about how leaders can put this into practice in the clip below. 

When executive leaders learn to instinctively encourage and remind employees they’re valuable to the organization, not only does innovation increase, but teams also begin to take more ownership in the organization’s success.  

Growth mindset

Another one of the most vital executive leadership skills is a growth mindset. Leaders that have a growth mindset don’t back down from a challenge; they see it as an opportunity to learn. And this desire for growth has a ripple effect that’s felt at all levels of the organization. Such leaders become the biggest advocates for L&D opportunities, which are now high on the list of benefits that employees desire. 

LinkedIn’s recent Workforce Learning Report found that “94% of employees said they’d stay at a company longer if it invested in helping them learn.” As new technologies advance by the minute, the necessary skill sets for jobs are changing. Leaders with a growth mindset lead by example, helping teams keep up with the pace of change and prepare for the new world of work. 

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Communication skills are crucial for executive leaders as they engage with stakeholders, clients, vendors, and other senior managers whose time is valuable. They must learn how to influence and persuade others, present their ideas with confidence and charisma, and give feedback effectively. 

Executive leaders are often so busy that they forget to slow down and deliberately listen to others. But the old saying holds true: “We have two ears and only one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Active listening is an art, but like the other executive leadership skills on this list, it can be developed through training and practice.

Final thoughts

Strong executive leadership skills are invaluable to an organization. Steve Jobs once said, “Leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” By developing the capabilities listed above, leaders will not only make strides toward their own potential, but spur others on toward theirs as well. 

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