Home > Talent Insights Blog > The Periodic Table of Leadership Skills

Authored By: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

If you work for a company that uses chemicals, your work is made a bit easier by the agreed upon, scientifically produced Periodic Table of the Elements (Currently 1 – Hydrogen to 118 – Organesson). Argon is Argon. Gold is Gold. Silver is Silver. The Table is a combination of natural and created chemicals and elements. There is an established research history on what each element is, what it does, how it combines with others and multiple proven ways in which the elements can be used to produce products and services. No one owns the Table other than the collective community of element scientists, two unions of international chemists and physicists, who both publish the Table and agree on the elements that populate it.

If you need a chemical to make something, logistics can order it from any element provider by name and atomic number. Building services will know how it needs to be stored and contained. Most workers will know how to “handle” it in the manufacturing process. Marketing will know how to list it on the label. Most purchasers will know what they are buying.

The Periodic Table makes a lot of things simpler.

A USB cable, made by anyone, will fit any device. That’s because an industry group negotiated a standard so that device manufacturers could build features that require hooking up different elements of a digital system. A USB cable purchased anywhere will fit any device built to accept a USB connection.

A USB standard makes a lot of things simpler.

All medical specialties have a common agreed-upon set of standards to become “Board Certified”. So, consumers can select any plastic surgeon with a minimum guarantee of a standard set of skills.

Board Certification makes a lot of things simpler.


Is There a Periodic Table for Leadership Skills?

What would make the world of work and careers simpler is if we had a Periodic Table of Leadership Elements. A common, scientifically derived, agreed-upon table of the knowledge, skills, abilities, and attributes (KSAs) required to effectively and successfully manage and lead.

Well, there isn’t one, yet there IS one. Confused?

There isn’t one because we mostly operate in a capitalist, free enterprise system with intellectual property rules, regulations, and protections domestically and (in most countries) internationally. This means that many people may be talking about the same leadership “element”, but with different labels.

Leadership KSAs are variously provided by consultants and vendors, academics, authors, government, and digital management platforms. Each creates their version of Leadership KSAs. Each creation is potentially protected intellectual property through copyrights and trademarks. As such, each distinct library of Leadership KSAs cannot be used by others without expressed permission (which can be denied) and each creator can issue cease and desist orders to stop others from copying their work.

Each library creator, to monetize and/or gain recognition for their IP, must make their KSAs materially different than everyone else’s to avoid legal jeopardy. Copyright laws say you cannot copyright an idea, but the unique expression of an idea can be protected.

To successfully market their library of leadership competencies or practices, IP creators need to claim that they’ve published the best (or the only correct) version to address all leadership challenges. It most likely isn’t.

Also, there isn’t a universal Periodic Table for Leadership because effective and successful managers and leaders are different. There is not a single path to effectiveness. Therefore, there can’t be one list or Table that everyone accepts and leverages.

Different people manage and lead in different ways. There are multiple effective ways, sometimes varying because of different situations and circumstances. Managing and leading in a startup is different than in a turn-around. Managing and leading in high tech is different than in elder care. So, if there was a Table, it would have to be a series of tables. Many, many Tables. Tables for different kinds of people and different situations, because context matters.

The Periodic Table of Leadership Skills We DO Have

What we do have, perhaps not clear to many, is a Table of all the KSAs managers and leaders use to be effective and successful. You won’t be able to find it as easily as a Periodic Table, but it exists.

If you locked all the recognized and accomplished leadership experts and gurus in a room and instructed them that they may exit after they’ve reached consensus on a single set of KSAs, it could be done.

What they would ultimately agree to is that there are at least three sets of KSAs.  Research unequivocally supports that there is a set for Individual Contributors, a set for Managers and Team Leaders, and a set for Senior Leaders. The sets are materially different. There used to be four when we understood that there was a material difference between a first-line supervisor and a manager of supervisors, but organizational design trends have flattened organizations and trimmed levels of management, so we sit at three.

Although there IS NOT one model defining an effective manager or leader, nor a simple, definitive list of 5, or 8, or 11 attributes of successful managers or leaders, there IS a library of potential KSAs. Any one manager or leader will never use all the KSAs in the library. Each will use a subset depending upon personal preferences and specific situations. A specific enterprise might prefer to be managed and led by a subset of the KSAs in context to their mission critical needs. All effective and successful Individual Contributors, Supervisors, Managers and Leaders will use a subset of the Master KSA Tables in the same way all products will use a subset of the chemicals and elements of the Periodic Table. No product uses them all.

Again, because of the intellectual property world in which we live, and although all experts would eventually agree on the contents of the Leadership KSA library, each creator would use different language. They’ll use WOO, Personal Power and Influence, Charisma, Sparkle, Edge (Jack Welch at GE), Passion, Agility or other labels that are distinctive to their IP. The definitions will be much more similar than the KSA labels.

There are three Periodic Tables: Individual Contributor, Manager and Leader KSAs.  Each table is worded differently. Each is broken into different sized pieces. Research points to roughly 30 behavioral items per Table to cover everything in each library. These are offered by originators of intellectual property in the talent management domain.

The various KSA libraries share a lot of common ground. All of the Tables offered by the most credible and respected originators, while using unique language, are near equivalent. Why? Because all have read the same research, have observed the same behavior over time, have coached talent to demonstrate these behaviors, have worked at all organizational levels, have read the biographies and have studied the exemplars.

Once you select an originator (author, consultant, academic, talent management product provider), use that library as the common language to describe and evaluate people, supervisors, managers, and leaders. Use it to profile jobs, source talent, hire, orient and onboard, appraise performance, staff, train and develop, coach, enhance engagement, and plan succession so that, in your enterprise, Argon is Argon, Silver is Silver, and Listening Skills are Listening Skills, however labeled.

In our public libraries there are thousands and thousands of books. For any given purpose, you check out a subset. In Leadership libraries, there might be 30 books that cover essential KSAs. In any given context you’ll primarily lean on 11 of these.

Our advice is to pick a Table from a reliable source and founded on evidenced-based research. Spend time implementing a common people language and use it for all talent management elements.

You won’t get much done in an enterprise if there are five languages being used to get great things done. Too much gets lost in translation and taking the time and expense to interpret and consolidate is a very heavy lift. You must pick one language from which everyone can talk about development, effectiveness and success in context to the challenges at hand.