In the recent article, The Most Important Leadership Competencies According to Leaders Around the World, Sunnie Giles identifies the 15 most important leadership competencies based on a study she conducted of 195 leaders from around the world.  These competencies were categorized into five common themes: Strong Ethics & Safety; Self-Organizing; Efficient Learning; Nurtures Growth; Connection & Belonging. Giles does a good job explaining why these competencies rose to the top and then suggesting ways leaders can improve in these areas.

However, Giles’s core hypothesis is that effective leadership isn’t natural. Her premise for this conclusion is based on erroneous leaps in logic from neuroscience to the topic of leadership.  For example, Giles repeatedly invokes neuroscience referring to how the fight or flight instinct inhibits clear thinking (see our other article on why you should be suspicious of people quoting neuroscience).  She applies this example to issues as divergent as why leaders need to be ethical to why leaders are reluctant to empower subordinates. It appears that Giles has found the proverbial neuroscientific hammer and every leadership challenge looks like a nail.

Because of her narrow focus on neuroscience, Giles misses the common thread that binds the 15 leadership competencies together. The binding agent is the fact that the most effective leaders focus on the needs of others. They create environments that make people feel safe, valued, empowered, connected, and nurtured.  They encourage creativity and provide a sense of purpose. They are motivated by building up those around them even if it puts their own personal interests at risk.

Many would term this common theme as servant leadership. It’s not a new concept. In fact, it’s been around long enough that its true definition has become lost as more and more people have tried to understand it, reshape it, and apply it.

In his book Servant Leadership, first published in 1977, Robert Greenleaf identifies the characteristics of a servant leader.  He begins by differentiating the servant-first leader, or a person whose natural desire to serve inspires a conscious choice to lead, from the leader-first leader, or a person who aspires to lead and later chooses to serve. Greenleaf argues that “the difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

In the simplest terms, the most effective and respected leaders are viewed as servants by those they lead. Leaders serve. That’s a paradox that is hard to apply because it doesn’t come naturally.