File - Courtney Brewer - Student Affairs in Higher Education

Skills Approach
Courtney Brewer
Missouri State University
Leadership is innately necessary for the constructive functioning of today’s society.
Without the numerous types of leadership roles, the government, schools, businesses, and even
civility would cease to exist. Leadership plays a critical role in the system of higher education.
Boards, faculty, advisors, and many more create the atmosphere to allow for the student success
the colleges and universities across the nation produce. While the obvious stakeholders of these
institutions, those that hold the titles of Deans of specific colleges and so on, are the obvious
leaders, they are not the only leaders on campus. Without Residence Life staff, Student
Organizations staff, student leaders (along with the other very important Student Affairs
functional areas, of course), the institution simply would not tick. It is these people who are
implementing change to better the quality of university life. With that being said, what exactly is
it that these crucial leaders possess to make them such efficient leaders?
Robert Katz believed that skills are what leaders can accomplish and defined them as the
ability to use one’s own knowledge and competencies to accomplish a set of goals or objectives
(Northouse, 2013, p. 44). On top of Katz’s Three-Skill Approach, the Skills approach to
Leadership also focuses on Michal Mumford’s Skills Model in which the goal was to explain the
underlying goal of effective performance. With this paper, one will be able to identify the
similarities and differences of the skills approach compared to other leadership approaches and
acknowledge how a Residence Life staff member’s skills are applicable to this approach.
To explain the skills approach in more depth, it can be seen as broken up into two
separate parts: the Three-Skill Approach proposed by Robert Katz and the Skills Model proposed
by Michael Mumford. Katz had the idea that effective administration (i.e. leadership) depends
on three basic personal skills: technical, human, and conceptual (Northouse, 2013, p. 44).
Technical skills refer to knowledge about a specific type of work, human skills require the ability
to work with people, and conceptual skills includes working with ideas and concepts. This idea
used these skills on the basis of how necessary they are based on what level of management one
might be on. For example, one in supervisory management needs a large amount of technical
and human skills but just an average amount of conceptual skills whereas one in top management
may only need an average amount of technical skills but a large amount of human and
conceptual skills. In the Skills Model, Mumford and colleagues created a model examining the
relationship between a leader’s knowledge and skills and the leader’s performance with the idea
that leadership capabilities can be developed over time through education and experience
(Northouse, 2013, p. 47). This model has five components: competencies, individual attributes,
leadership outcomes, career experiences, and environmental influences.
Now that one is able to wrap his/her arms around the makeup and ideas of the everinfluential skills approach, it is time to see how this particular approach measures up to the
components of other leadership approaches. First, the trait approach was one of the very first
attempts at researching and studying leadership. The theories developed around trait approach
were often referred to “great man” theories due to the idea that people were born with specific
innate qualities and characteristics and that only “great” leaders possessed these traits
(Northouse, 2013, p. 19). In essence, the skills approach and the trait approach are much the
same in that they both contain a leader-centered perspective. The idea of both approaches is that
exceptional leadership comes from the role that the leader plays, whether this role is due to
innate qualities and characteristics or learned skills and abilities. However, skills approach and
trait approach contrast in more ways than one. As mentioned before, the two approach differ in
the sense that skills approach is very much focused on the learned skills that one obtains whereas
trait approach believes that leadership comes from the innate qualities and abilities that one
possesses. On the one hand, Katz and Mumford believed that one could learn to be a leader
through education and experience. A good example of this would be resident assistants who
have all types of different qualities, characteristics, and personalities. They undergo extensive
training and hands-on learning and after a semester or so of on-the-job experience, almost all
resident assistants have learned, or at least begun to learn, empathy, respect, loyalty, and more.
On the other hand, trait approach maintained the idea that certain people possess these traits and
certain do not. This means that some students would naturally possess the traits that a resident
assistant would need to be successful and other students would simply not be able to handle the
job effectively. Another difference between the two approaches includes how organizations
should hire new employees. If a Residence Life position was open at Missouri State, the skills
approach would suggest the recruitment team to view what skills would be needed depending on
what type of leadership level was needed. If this position was for a desk worker, the team may
consider individuals who could handle a job with high technical and people skills but if this
position was the Director of Residence Life, the team may consider someone would could work
well with people and concepts. With this same scenario, the trait approach, however, would
suggest the interviewers to conduct a personality assessment in order to find the “right”
leadership style regardless of what position within the department was open.
The next leadership approach to be assessed is style approach. Style approach focuses on
what leaders do, how they act, and their actions toward subordinates in various contexts. This
approach maintains the idea that leadership is composed of two kinds of behavior: task behaviors
and relationship behaviors. Task behaviors include goal accomplishment and help group
members achieve their objectives and relationship behaviors help subordinates feel comfortable
with themselves, with each other, and with the situation (Northouse, 2013, p. 75). This approach
also includes the Leadership Grid proposed by Blake and Mouton which was designed to explain
how leaders reach their purpose through concern for production, how a leader is concerned with
achieving organizational tasks, and concern for people, how the leader attends to the people in
the organization who achieve its goals. The grid contains two axes which represent how much or
how little concern a leader has for people and production (Northouse, 2013, p. 78-79).
Style approach and skills approach have a very dominant, comparing aspect. One of the
skills in Katz’s Three-Skill Approach are human skills which is the ability to work with people,
and the style approach includes relationship behaviors with subordinates. The human skills and
relationship behaviors aspects of the two leadership approaches relate because it shows that both
approaches demonstrate the importance that working well with, getting along with, and helping
other people have on leadership. The major difference between the skills approach and the style
approach would have to be the varying levels of management versus the Leadership Grid. With
the skills approach levels of management, Katz believed that leaders in all areas of management
possessed specific types of skills but just had different levels of those skills. With the
Leadership Grid, the idea is that all leaders fall into one of five categories of management and
each category has a completely different set of characteristics to go along with it. With skills
approach, management level depends only on what level of technical, human, and conceptual
skills one has. But with the style approach, many factors are taken into play such as
characteristics, behaviors, and the needs of subordinates.
After taking a closer look at the skills approach, I firmly believe that this approach is a
positive demonstration of the idea that any individual has the capability to be a leader should he
or she put forth the necessary effort to learn. With the skills approach in mind, I feel that my
mentor and previous supervisor, Colt Kraus, is an ideal representation of a skills-based leader.
First, taking a look at Katz’s Three-Skill Approach, Colt maintained an appropriate level of each
type of skill as it corresponded with the three separate aspects of our job. With technical skills,
knowledge about a specific work or activity, he was proficient in tracking the input and
evaluation of the resident assistants’ programs in the program database along with writing
reports, creating charge letters, and assessing consequences all within the conduct database.
With human skills, the ability to work with people, Colt not only had a great relationship with
the student leaders he supervised and being a role model for them, but he connected with
residents within the building, as well, so much so that they had utmost respect for him. And with
conceptual skills, the ability to work with ideas, he was able to assist resident assistants in
planning programs when they had a very vague concept and needed help expanding on that.
Overall, the skills approach is a very motivating theory especially to students in higher
education as they are able to understand that they are capable of being an effective leader simply
through education and experience. Katz and Mumford believed that being an efficient leader or
manager can be achieved through different levels and use of learned skills. The skills approach
in regards to other leadership approaches simply shows that there is always more than one way to
reach a common goal. And finally, finding those leaders that you connect with and can truly
learn from is the first big step toward leadership success.
Northouse, Peter G. (2013). Leadership: theory and practice, (6th ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Productions.