Leadership X.0
15 January 2020

Hard and soft skills, although fundamental, are increasingly insufficient to navigate VUCA contexts. A future-proof leadership requires the development of capabilities, skills that can shift the crossbar of one’s potential upwards

“We are more capable than what we believe”
N. Branden

“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning”
M. Gandhi

In this article we discuss the importance of a new type of competence that is particularly relevant for a leadership in VUCA contexts.

The nature and the role of traditional skills have changed in response to the growing complexity of the environment and the increased importance of individual relationships, both in work and social contexts. The variety of these relationships has also increased, due to the emergence of new activities and the development of new features of the environment. All this has increased the importance of communication and relationship skills, the so-called soft skills. On the one hand, this has diverted attention from technical skills and quality content, the so-called hard skills, which however continue to be of fundamental importance for a leader; on the other, it has determined a strong interest in the study of soft skills, as if these, on their own, provided all the tools the leader needed to navigate VUCA contexts.

The leader is increasingly exposed to an unstable environment, which doesn’t cease to raise new challenges, while requiring, more and more frequently, the pursuit of new objectives, with reference to which hard skills and soft skills have become increasingly insufficient. New skills are needed, the capabilities, which we define as the ability to move the bar of one’s potential upwards. The development of capabilities is essential for individuals and organizations to realize their potential, successfully overcome new challenges, and achieve new goals.

But why are capabilities useful in navigating a VUCA context and why are they future-proof?

This article has two objectives: first, to overcome the traditional concepts used to characterize and evaluate the skills of an individual or an organization; second, to characterize a new competence required to achieve a potential with reference to which individuals’ and organizations’ current resources, skills and abilities are not sufficient.

Historically, the attention of scholastic and university institutions, as well as other training initiatives, has focused on the formation of good quality technical skills, which were considered essential for the assignment of specific roles and for the correct performance of assignments, tasks and predetermined tasks. Roles and tasks were, in turn, derived from the detailed study of operational processes and prototypical situations, organized and managed according to a vertical leadership scheme, in which decision-making responsibility and management were held by a leader and the related tasks and instructions implemented individually by subordinates in an executive manner.

Over time, operational processes have undergone a significant evolution: the leadership scheme has become less and less vertical and the management of activities and tasks turned less and less individualistic. This has led to a fundamental change: the objectives that were once pursued through the performance of individual activities have changed, requiring more and more group activities. Teamwork has gradually replaced individual work and gave rise to new interpersonal relationships, both social and on the job.

In this new scheme, soft skills, in addition to traditional hard skills, have become of fundamental importance. By soft skills we mean those team members’ transversal competences which allow to significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of activities; that is to say, those particular abilities and competences of an individual required for effective and productive interaction with other individuals, whether members of a work team or individuals in a social context. In other words, soft skills are those personal attributes, character traits, emotional intelligence and communication skills that can improve work and everyday life.

Soft skills have emerged as distinct and complementary to hard skills and, like hard skills, are fundamental. For this reason, soft skills have been the subject of a lot of research and in-depth studies. However, the attention placed on them should not lead us to believe that the hard skills have become less important and, therefore, to be put on a side. This would be a simplistic perspective, as school and university courses as well as training programs, still are and will be of fundamental importance to ensure the acquisition of key knowledge and content.

Soft skills are therefore complementary skills and do not replace hard skills. Both types of skills must therefore be acquired, ensuring the necessary balance for the specific professional and social contexts in which individuals are required to interact.

However, the balanced presence of soft skills and quality hard skills does not represent a wealth of skills sufficient to operate in a VUCA context, which is characterized by relentless development and non-stop adjustments, imposing new challenges and objectives with regard to which individuals and organizations might not have necessarily acquired specific experiences and skills.

To face these new challenges, a new type of competence is needed, the capability, which we define as the ability to develop new resources, skills and abilities on the basis of currently available competences, with the purpose achieve a specific unprecedented objective. The capability represents an indication of potential of an individual or organization with reference to a specific task. I am facing a goal I have never faced before: am I able or not to achieve it?

For example, a journalist who can do good drafting may not necessarily be able to write a novel. So, suppose that a publisher wants to select a writer to whom asking for the writing of a novel. If he wanted to consider a good journalist as the writer of his novel, who had only written good newspapers articles, the publisher should evaluate not only if the journalist has the required hard skills (good drafting) and soft skills (good relationship and communication skills), but also, and most importantly, if he is able or not to bring to successfully perform a task he has never endeavored, that is, writing a novel. In this example, we find the essence of a capability, that is, the potential of an individual to reach a specific objective never endeavored before.

There is a famous precedent: Ernest Hemingway, Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for literature, as well as revolutionary innovator of the narrative and literary styles of the ‘900, was born a reporter and journalist. He endeavored into creative writing (novels and short stories) only at a later stage. It proved to have the capability of creative writing and became a formidable style innovator, transferring the meager and lean style, typical of the reporter, into his literary works.

In summary, while on the one hand the hard skills form an individual, providing him with essential content and technical skills, and the soft skills allow the same individual to communicate and interact with others effectively, on the other hand, the capabilities allow to evaluate if the current resources, skills and abilities of an individual, appropriately used and combined together, can allow him to achieve an unprecedented objective. It is not only the skills (hard and soft) that make the achievement of a new goal possible. It is also, and most importantly, the development of a new potential (the capability) that appears critical.

We are left with one last question: why are capabilities useful to navigate a VUCA context and why are they future-proof? The answer is simple: a VUCA context, as we know, is in relentless evolution, through endless adjustments, is inexorably perturbed by the interaction between individuals, companies and institutions. Challenges change over time and new ones arise. Rarely, and at best only temporarily, the resources, skills and abilities acquired in the past are sufficient to successfully face new challenges. Individuals, companies and institutions are required to develop capabilities by innovatively combining the resources, skills and abilities they own in order to move their frontier towards a higher action and thinking potential. In its own way, also the development of a capability has a strong rhizomatic connotation, since the new thinking and the new frontier become possible only by new combinations of resources, skills and abilities.