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What’s the Number 1 Leadership Skill for Overall Success?

Pittsburgh—There is one leadership skill that ranks far and above all others in determining your overall success as a leader according to a new High-Resolution Leadership report from Development Dimensions International (DDI), a pioneer in leadership assessment and development for 45 years.

Leaders who master listening and responding with empathy will perform more than 40 percent higher in overall performance, coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing, and decision making, according to the research. The unprecedented report is based on the analysis of real behaviors in assessment center simulations from over 15,000 leaders across 300 companies in 18 countries over a decade.

“Being able to listen and respond with empathy is overwhelmingly the one interaction skill that outshines all other skills leaders need to be successful,” said Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, DDI.

DDI defines empathy as acknowledging others’ feelings and circumstances when they express emotion verbally or nonverbally. Empathy involves letting others know that their feelings are understood and helps them to feel that their perspective is being taken into account.

“Each and every day, leaders have multiple conversations with a range of constituents. Each of these interactions will collectively determine their ultimate success as a leader,” said Wellins.

The leaders who were highly successful in DDI’s research were able to use empathy to understand key constituents’ concerns, frustrations and feelings. Using empathy is very important to diffuse conflict and learn more about facts, circumstances and/or feelings.

“The research shows there is no other single leadership skill that is more important and yet, in today’s culture, empathy is near extinction. I believe it is one of the most dangerous global trends of our time,” he added.

The Dearth of Empathy

There is a wealth of research that shows empathy is on the decline, according to Wellins. With the advancement of technology, it has become commonplace to send an email or text and eliminate conversations altogether. “Many in today’s workplace think sending an emoticon is equivalent to responding with empathy,” said Wellins. “It just isn’t so.”

A study released by the University of Michigan reported that college students are 40 percent less likely to have empathy compared to 20 to 30 years ago. DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership report found the same in today’s workplace. Only 40 percent frontline leaders were proficient or strong in empathy. Of the eight leadership interaction skills measured, listening and responding with empathy was one of the weakest.

This research documents the importance of empathy to overall leadership success, said Wellins. The good news is that soft skills, including listening and responding with empathy, can be learned and practiced.

Relationship Between Interaction Skills and Job Performance

Book Smarts or Soft Skills?

The DDI research also evaluated whether leadership performance is impacted more by cognitive ability (IQ) or emotional intelligence (EQ). The findings showed that brainpower alone did a better job in predicting the more business-focused aspects of leader performance such as business savvy and financial acumen. However, soft skills related more strongly to performance in the people-focused competencies, such as leading teams and evaluating networks.

“The reality is that both brainpower and soft skills matter to overall leadership success. However, we cannot overemphasize the importance of emotional intelligence. Far more leadership failures are attributed to insensitivity than stupidity,” said Wellins.

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About DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership

DDI’s new High-Resolution Leadership report provides both a telescopic and microscopic lens on what drives great leadership performance, and, ultimately, business performance. This report is unprecedented for a combination of reasons. First, the data is based on real behaviors observed in DDI’s assessment centers during “day in a life” leadership simulations. Second, the research represents more than a decade of details from more than 15,000 candidates being considered for leadership roles ranging from frontline to the C-suite, representing over 300 organizations across 20 industries in 18 countries. The 18 findings in the High-Resolution Leadership report draw a very clear picture of what makes a great leader, what leadership skills predict better business metrics, and which personal attributes and skill patterns influence leader success as they move higher. Please read the full report and 18 individual findings.

Available for interviews

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., DDI Chief Scientist and Director, Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research
Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., DDI Senior Vice President
Matthew J. Paese, Ph.D., Vice President, Succession Management & C-Suite Services

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