Good leadership—talent or skill?

The adult learning world is rife with confusion about the meaning of terms like skills, abilities, personality attributes, preferences, talents, psychological states, dispositions, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. This confusion can interfere with the effectiveness of both recruitment and leadership development.

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For example I recently ran across an article in Gallup’s Business Journal that lists the following 5 traits of successful leaders, including the ability to:

  • engage employees and motivate them to take action,
  • drive outcomes and overcome adversity and resistance,
  • create a culture of accountability,
  • build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency, and
  • make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

The author refers to these as talents. But, in reality, all 5 abilities are skills that, in a learning-friendly environment, can be developed through reflective practice. Some people may start out with more talent than others, and this may allow them to build these skills more quickly, but even they must build these skills through reflective practice.

Some people may see this distinction between talent and skill as a simple matter of semantics, but I disagree. The employer or employee who attributes leadership skill to talent is less likely to believe that it’s worthwhile to focus on the deliberate development of these skills, disadvantaging both employees and the organization.

Assessment is another area in which the failure to distinguish between terms that describe mental attributes can have serious consequences. Particularly in the adult assessment world, test developers often claim that tests of attitudes, opinions, beliefs, dispositions, or psychological states are tests of ability, competence, or skill. The worst offenders market surveys and projective tests.

Survey: A survey is made up of stems, like “It’s important for leaders to demonstrate courage,” or “I’d rather go hiking than attend a concert.” The test-taker is asked to rate each stem on a scale. Tests that ask for ratings generally cannot be considered tests of ability or skill, with couple of exceptions—(1) when a trained rater is using ratings to evaluate skills demonstrated by another person, or (2) when the test-taker is being asked to rate the accuracy of a factual statement.

Projective Test: Projective tests are intended to uncover hidden attitudes, biases, or psychological states. They are composed of items that don’t seem to be about anything in particular—as with word association tests or the Rorschach Test. These tests try to get us to reveal an attitude, bias, preference, or psychological state without being aware we are doing so. Like surveys, projective tests cannot measure skills or abilities, but unlike surveys, projective tests cannot measure them even when their rating scales are being used by a trained rater.

Rorschach Ink blot test item. (I see two waving hooded figures hiding inside an alien pelvis.)

Assessments of ability or skill always ask people to demonstrate abilities or skills directly. The most common of these are the dreaded multiple choice tests of the 20th century (still hanging on in the 21st century). But skills and abilities can also be assessed through observation, the creation of products, and other direct applications of skill. The best assessments of ability or skill are also formative, which means they not only assess current abilities or skills, but provide support for continued learning.



Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.

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Theo Dawson

Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.