Leaders, Know the Skill and Will of Those You Lead

I’ve found myself talking about skill and will a lot lately.  Whether it be in one-on-one leadership coaching sessions or in group training, the conversation is often directed towards customizing a leadership approach based on the needs of the person being “led”.  Much of our basic leadership training modules focus on customization based on personality, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. A person’s level of skill in doing a job or task and a person’s will to do the job or task (which includes aspects of personality) are critical to success. 

So what is skill and what is will? 

Skill: A person’s ability to do a job or tasks well which comes from him/her having the knowledge, experience and/or raw talent needed to achieve the desired results. 

Will: A person’s desire to do a job and do it with excellence which comes as a result of personality and internal motivation.  A person being on the right bus (organization) and on the right seat (job) on the bus also impacts a person’s will. 

Simply put, skill is the fact that a person has what is needed to do the job well, a person’s will is that the person actually wants to do the job and do it well.  Each dimension also breeds and fuels off each other. If you are good at something, you often like it, and if you like to do something you often get good at it. 

So many things can go wrong when we mismatch our leadership to a person’s skill and will.  This can occur when: 

  1. We don’t diagnosis someone’s level of skill and/or will correctly.
  2. We are so afraid of “micromanaging” that we don’t correctly realize people need guidance at times based on their level of skill.
  3. On the opposite extreme, we are so afraid something may go wrong that we do micro-managing, which leads to crushed will when someone who does have the skill needed to  do a job is “over led.”
  4. We know someone has a certain level of skill and will with one thing so we label them the same level of skill and will for everything.  Skill and will can and are variable based on a variety of factors at any given time. 

In order to avoid these mistakes, the first thing to do is to correctly diagnosis a person’s skill and will level based on the task or job at hand.  You do this by: 

1 Simply ask the person where they think their skill/will falls. Most people can give an honest assessment of these levels if you’ve built trust with them.   I ask questions like: How do you feel about doing this on your own? Have you ever done this before?  What problems do you think you will face or are you concerned about? Do you want to do this? Why or why not? Simply asking questions will help you know where people are.  

2. Ask them to walk you through how they would do something/achieve an outcome. Can they articulate steps in achieving an outcome or provide specific examples of when and how they’ve done it or something similar before? If so, their skill level is most likely high. If someone talks in vague generalities about how to do something, they most likely won’t have the maximum level of competence needed to achieve the result.  You can also assess their enthusiasm for the task and desire to do it through this exercise. (Note: This is a good interviewing tactic too when hiring to assess for skill and will.)

3. Observe them doing the task/job to assess where they are.   Quite simply, if you watch someone do something you can tell if they can do it well or not.   You can assess their confidence, skill, and enthusiasm through observation. 

4. Debrief after they do something to assess their like for the activity and their desire to do it again.  What did they learn and how will they grow to develop further skills based on what they learned?  Do they want to do it again or are they bored by it? Oftentimes, when someone reaches a high level of skill, will can begin to diminish because a been there, done that attitude begins to set in.  If the person can build on those skills by teaching others the skill(s) and or adding the next level of complexity to the task/job, you can continue to maintain will and interest.

Once you’ve diagnosed someone’s level of skill and will, it is then time to put these two pieces together to determine how you should best lead the person.   

Giving examples of how to lead I find is the best way to illustrate what you can do right and what you can do terribly wrong.  With that being said, we’ll devote the next few posts to scenarios based on all four combinations:  

  • low skill & high will
  • high skill & high will
  • high skill & low will
  • low skill & low will

Stay tuned…..


Note:  Many of the thoughts and ideas derived with skill and will come from the Situational Leadership approach developed by Hersey and Blanchard.   This approach uses different terms than skill (competence) and will (commitment), but many of the thought processes are the same. I’d suggest reading The One Minute Manager if you are interested in learning more about this model and the practical application of it in the workplace. 


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Mary Ila Ward