Strategic leadership: Essential skills for executives

March 27, 2024 •

7 min reading

Strategic leadership: Essential skills for executives - What matters?

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Traditionally, it was autocratic leadership skills that separated senior business leaders from the rest. In this model of top-down control, someone with a strong presence who could make quick decisions and take control of any situation would be at the forefront of the organization. They would rely on their own knowledge and experience to drive the business forward.

However, much has changed over the last few decades. Authoritarian leadership styles no longer work, having been associated with negative performance, work culture deterioration, and declining employee engagement. Nowadays, being a boss requires a more empathetic approach and soft skills such as communication, conflict management, and collaboration. Strategic leadership, integrating long-term vision and adaptability, has emerged as a key factor in navigating the complexities of the modern business landscape.

Today, executives are adopting flexible, people-centric leadership styles to help them recruit and retain Gen Z and Millennial workers and appeal to socially responsible consumers. In this article, we’ll look at the key skills executives need to lead increasingly diverse and progressive organizations.


Interpersonal skills in the workplace: The key to success for today's leaders

The Harvard Business Review looked at over 5,000 executive job descriptions to see how skill requirements had changed over 17 years. It found that for the CEO and other four key leaders in the C-suite: the chief information officer, chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, and head of HR, although technical skills were still highly relevant, organizations now prioritize one attribute ahead of all others: interpersonal skills.

Interpersonal skills cover a broad range of capabilities, including excellent verbal communication, active listening, empathy, and the ability to get along with people at different organizational levels. The research theorized that the complex nature of today’s organizations and the sheer number and diversity of the relationships within them made highly developed social skills a priority.

These days, executives interact with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders, and their ability to do so personally, transparently, and accountably has a direct impact on the productivity and performance of the business. Leaders must also increasingly interact in real time thanks to the immediacy of social media. They are expected to be public figures who communicate effectively and foster relationships without relying on corporate communications and PR teams.

“Ambitious future leaders need to understand that success depends as much on a tight business plan as it does on the people-centricity of their team and mindset.”

Dr Inès Blal, EHL Executive Dean, in an article on How to Develop Leadership Soft Skills.

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C-suite executives: What other skills do they need? 

As well as excellent social skills, modern organizations seek a mixture of hard and soft skills in their C-suite executives. Many of these skills are high-impact and cannot be easily replicated by technology. And while some may think these skills are part of one’s inherent nature, all soft skills can be learned and developed with practice.


Self-awareness is a soft skill you may not associate with the executives of old, but it’s a critical skill for modern senior leaders. Self-aware leaders understand their strengths, weaknesses, the contribution they make, and the impact their leadership behaviors have on those around them and the organizational goals.

The higher up the hierarchy a manager goes, the less critical feedback they tend to receive, and that can limit their effectiveness. Having access to continued, objective feedback via a coach or mentor can help leaders adjust and adapt their behaviors and better understand how their innate biases and prejudices can hinder progress.

One study found that self-aware leaders are more likely to be thought of as fair, trustworthy, and credible by their employees. That’s because they recognize their limitations, are open about their mistakes, and acknowledge that sometimes they are not always the best person for the job.

How to develop it: There are many ways to develop your self-awareness, but one article outlines four tools or methods that have been proven to work for graduate students check it out.


The tendency is to think of decision-making as an attribute of an authoritative leader, but it’s a vital skill regardless of your leadership style. Good decision-makers can balance emotion with reason, combine experience with data, and assess a range of options objectively to find the best outcome.

Good decision makers consider the impact of their decisions on employees, customers, and other stakeholders. They also think about fairness, whether it’s who gets a promotion or how to allocate resources, and they are always transparent about their reasons.

Making decisions always carries an element of risk, and even the most accomplished leaders don’t get it right every time. That’s why executives need to continuously work on their decision-making skills.

How to develop it: Luckily, this skill set can easily be enhanced with leadership training that develops emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

Strategic thinking

Being able to think strategically and see the bigger picture is an essential skill for executives. Strategic thinkers can step back from their day-to-day tasks and consider the longer-term direction of the organization based on its goals, the information, resources, and relationships available, and the opportunities and challenges they face.

Leaders with good strategic skills think analytically and creatively to make data-driven decisions that solve problems and help the organization adapt to market and industry changes. Another crucial part of strategic thinking is to interact with others to explore different perspectives and then sell your vision to the relevant stakeholders. To do all that, you need excellent social skills.

How to get it: The short-cut to better strategic thinking skills is through targeted upskilling courses for executives, because these courses are designed for leaders and go straight to the point. It’s a good way to get a big ROI from a small investment of time and money.

Other ways to grow this skill organically include asking questions that focus on the future and seeking opposing viewpoints that can help you reach outside of your usual field of vision. Attending strategy sessions and workshops and collaborating with established strategic thinkers within the organization can also help you develop this vital skill.

Inspiring commitment

Even the best leader cannot successfully run an organization without the support of their wider leadership team or the workers on the ground. They have to be able to get results through the actions of others, and to do that, they need to delegate effectively and inspire commitment from their teams.

We tend to think about charismatic leaders delivering inspirational speeches, but there are many ways of creating a sense of commitment. Being someone that employees trust and respect, or being the hardest worker in the room, can create and validate commitment, as can the day-to-day interactions you have with your teams.

How to get it: There’s no textbook you can read or management school you can attend to learn how to inspire commitment in your teams. However, there are some essential elements you can work on, such as transparent communication, getting to know each team member as an individual, providing career support and development opportunities, and treating everyone professionally and fairly. It can also be beneficial to have conversations about the organization’s mission and why its goals are important.


Finding leaders with ‘the right stuff’

Companies still value executives with traditional hard skills, such as operational and administrative know-how, but now there’s an increasing awareness of the importance of softer skills, specifically interpersonal skills. Executives with highly developed social skills are now in demand thanks to their ability to navigate organizational boundaries and inspire commitment from their teams.

Whether organizations choose to seek those skills externally or develop the promising leaders they already have will depend on individual circumstances. But whatever option you choose, you must have a strong foundation of ongoing training and development in place - whether it’s through mentoring, coaching, or formal leadership training - to create the executives of the future.


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