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Core Competencies for Today's Business Leaders

Leadership expert and author Kevin Groves serves up essential traits shared by today's top professionals

One of the essential qualities for long-term success in today's business world is strong leadership — a broad category that has myriad components. And many of those components are constantly shifting and adapting to ever-changing global and cultural considerations, regardless of industry, NGO or non-profit.

It's essential for up-and-coming leaders to stay abreast of the changes and new assessment tools available, while brushing up on timeless competencies and strategies necessary to excel in 2020, said Kevin Groves, leadership expert and noted author, as well as UCI Division of Continuing Education instructor and Pepperdine professor.

Groves has identified core competencies that all leaders need to master in order to build a strong foundation for success.

“It's critical to develop competencies across three primary levels: leading self, leading teams, and leading organizations,” he said. “The most important leadership competencies for demonstrating influence and impact across these levels include integrity, strategic insight, self-awareness, collaboration skills, leading with purpose, mission and values, and inspiring others through a shared vision.”

Groves points out that collaboration skills are among the most crucial. Evolving technology and changing organizational structures require increasingly close coordination across business units and geographic regions, placing a premium on leadership styles that drive collaboration and influence without direct authority.

“The collaboration skills and competencies that are most critical for leaders in today's complex, diverse stakeholder environments include communication and listening skills, consensus-building, managing conflict, and cultural intelligence.”

Groves elaborated on several key qualities he has researched and identified as essential for today's leaders:

Strategic Insight

Leaders must demonstrate strategic insight and avoid “silo thinking” in their decision-making. “This way leaders can consistently adopt a ‘big picture’ view of the issues and challenges facing the organization,” Groves said. “Strive to consider multiple departments, business units, and/or regions and countries when making decisions.”

Collaboration Skills

Always seek input from stakeholders and invite a varied range of viewpoints. “Leaders who demonstrate collaboration skills can effectively seek contributions and input from a range of internal and external stakeholders. This facilitates a collaborative work environment that's open and receptive to the suggestions of others.”

Mission-Values Purpose-Driven

Remember who you work for and what the organization stands for — and act accordingly with a strong sense of purpose. “Leaders who are focused on their organization's mission and values and are purpose-driven demonstrate passion for the institutional mission. They demonstrate core company values, selflessness and orientation.”

Inspire Others

Strive to inspire others to adopt all of these competencies. “Leaders who inspire others can effectively articulate a clear vision for the team, department or project, and inspire coworkers to execute a shared vision.”

Embrace Agility

Accept change as inevitable and adapt proactively. “Leaders who demonstrate agility can adapt to changing situations and stay flexible and open-minded. They work effectively with new people and teams and demonstrate an openness to new ways of doing things.”

Exhibit Self-Awareness

Above all, know thyself, be honest and constantly work on self-improvement. Leaders who exhibit self-awareness have an accurate understanding of their strengths and limitations and actively seek to learn as much as possible from experiences, successes and mistakes. “This competency involves the willingness to develop any limitation in leadership skills and knowledge bases.”


“Leaders who demonstrate integrity maintain a very high level of excellence, honesty and standards concerning all ethical, legal and regulatory issues. This competency also involves the willingness to make moral decisions despite the potential for negative consequences.”

Kevin Groves“The collaboration skills and competencies that are most critical for leaders in today’s complex, diverse stakeholder environments include communication and listening skills, consensus-building, managing conflict, and cultural intelligence.”
— Kevin Groves, Leadership Expert and Author

Two emerging competencies have become increasingly relevant for effective leadership in the 21st century: Emotional Intelligence (or EQ) and Cultural Intelligence (CQ), Grove said.

“Leaders who demonstrate Emotional Intelligence are equipped with the skills to address setbacks and obstacles in a positive and constructive manner while maintaining a positive attitude throughout difficult circumstances. Leaders with Emotional Intelligence remain poised during highly charged or stressful periods and effectively role-model constructive approaches to pushing through setbacks and disappointments.”

There are validated tools for assessing EQ that can prove critical for leadership development. Groves’ company, Groves Consulting Group, uses the Leader Emotional Intelligence Assessment to measure EQ skills that include self-awareness and self-regulation, as well as interpersonal skills such as motivation, empathy and influencing.

“The combination of a validated leader EQ assessment and targeted development plan is an important part of leadership impact in today's organizations where relationships and knowledge/data are the currency of the business.”

Cultural intelligence includes the ability to effectively lead across different cultures in terms of ethnicity, nationality, and group cultures such as generations — mainly Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. It also considers occupational or professional cultures, academic background, political views and industry sector.

“Leaders with strong cultural intelligence possess the skills to influence others in cultural contexts that differ from their own personal background and worldviews,” Groves said. “Rigorous research on leadership effectiveness in culturally diverse communities and regions supports cultural intelligence as a critical factor for successful collaborations and partnerships.”

It's important to recognize that today's workplace can be a mix of highly distinct generational cultures. For example, Millennials, who will comprise over 70% of the workforce by 2030, share a unique set of values that strongly distinguishes them from Gen X and Baby Boomers, according to Groves.

“Millennials value diversity, work/life balance and an enjoyable workplace, along with high frequency of performance feedback, team-based work, and high autonomy in work roles,” he added. They are also far more loyal to their own profession or calling compared to company loyalty.

“In general, leaders in today's organizations must possess the CQ capabilities to navigate across multiple cultural groups, including multiple generations, cultural backgrounds, geographic locations, functional and professional groups, and other forms of cultural groups.”

UCI Division of Continuing Education’s leadership programs address these competencies and are designed for professionals at all levels.