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Perpetuating the false dichotomy of technical vs leadership skills in business


The CIPD have released a report showing that only 50% of employees are satisfied with their managers. Ben Willmott from CIPD recently spoke to the BBC Radio 5 live. I agree with almost everything Ben says about need to increase leadership and management skills - until his closing comments in which he reinforces the false dichotomy that people are either have good technical skills or good people skills, and that too many good technical people are promoted to become bad managers.

Certainly there may be many examples of where people who have a technical background are promoted in to management yet lack the communications skills, charisma, assertiveness, drive or any number of skills required to inspire and lead people, but these deficiencies are not a result of their technical competence. It does not follow that having good technical skills is an inhibitor or indicator of poor leadership potential, anymore than good leadership skills shows poor technical ability.

Poor managers are poor manager because they lack the skills, experience and behavioural characteristics to win the hearts and minds of their team, and inspire them to achieve a common goal - not because they are technically competent.

In my opinion, Ben is simply re-itterating a lazy and unscientific, but widely held belief among business leaders, especially in the IT industry, that employees are either techies or leaders.

For me, this belief holds as much validity as for example; 'Artisticly skilled people make poor project managers'. There is no causal relationship here that can be proven. 

In my experience, such assumptions are entirely false. It is entirely possible to be technically skilled, and have the ability to lead and inspire others to success. I have known many inspirational leaders in my career at IBM, and through my professional contacts with BCS The Chartered Institute for IT and various universities around the UK. Indeed IBM has an executive career path for technical professionals - who are required to demonstrate substained, evidenced and peer assessed leadership skills.

Prior to joining IBM I served for six years in the armed forces, in a role where officers were required to be just as technically competent as the most senior technical sergeants. I saw no evidence that holding deep technical skills in engineering, electronics and computing was fundamentally at odds with the ability to develop leadership skills in the military.

I expect better from the CIPD.

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