The Periodic Table of Leadership

May 16, 2019

What elements make good leadership

We humans are constantly in search of structure and order because this helps us understand complex relationships better. The same logic also applies when it comes to understanding the complex issue of leadership from a holistic perspective. It is therefore helpful to draw on existing structural systems from another discipline, such as the natural sciences. The chemical elements of the periodic table are wonderfully suitable for making analogies to leadership and getting a better orientation. Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, took a closer look at the individual groups of leadership elements. Here, she explains why there are also five states of aggregation in the periodic table of leadership and what good leadership actually means. In chemistry, a substance takes on different forms, called states of aggregation, depending on the current temperature and pressure. This process also takes place in the periodic table of leadership, where individual elements differ depending on how a manager acquires skills and what experience he or she brings to this context. These are the 5 states of leadership.

the periodic table of leadership

You can download the periodic table of leadership as a PDF file here.

1. Aggregate State "Solid" - the Hard Skills

Hard skills include those skills that people acquire during training or continuing education. The rules underlying knowledge in a particular field always remain valid, regardless of the industry, job position or even culture in which they are applied. It is verifiable, definable and can usually be easily learned or improved.

The Hard Skills
    • Corporate management (Cm); Strategic competence (Sc); Leadership competence (Lc)

      To lead a company successfully, managers should have a set of strategic leadership skills that are focused on achieving the greater purpose, rather than high profits. Skills, however, do not only include classic areas such as finance, personnel or production management. Corporate management in the sense of the "triple bottom line" goes much further: a good executive always has an eye on the social and ecological impact of the company.

    • Ability to apply knowledge (Aak)

      Having theoretical knowledge in one or more areas is one thing. To be able to put this knowledge into practice is another. Acquiring this skill allows a manager to create change or put something new in practice; it is undoubtedly one of the most important hard skills a person should have.

    • Digital literacy (Dl); Programming comprehension (Pc)

      New technologies and digital markets are strongly impacting a company's value creation, organization and business model. Digitally competent managers understand the interrelationships and are able to derive appropriate measures and strategies from them. This requires a basic understanding of programming in order to keep an eye on the "big picture" and to be able to communicate with your own experts at eye level. 

    • Change management competence (Cmc)

      The only thing that is constant is change: Being able to deal with changes and new influences in a confident and calm manner is an important leadership trait. It is also good to use dynamic situations as positive catalysts and as a basis for something new.

    • Ability to analyze and interpret (Ay and Int)

      Being able to think logically and abstractly is one of the most basic skills of executives. This enables you to get to the root of situations, form an appropriate picture of reality and draw the right conclusions from it.

2. Aggregate State "Liquid" - the Methodological Competence

Methodological competence describes people’s ability to use the appropriate tools and techniques correctly and effectively, especially when it comes to developing themselves and their team, solving problems successfully and enabling others to play to their strengths. Methodological competence is also becoming increasingly important because of ongoing digitization. In our modern working world, more and more tools and methods are available, which have to be mastered.

Methodological competence
    • Knowledge management (Km)

      Knowledge management is becoming increasingly important in companies because it is a matter of identifying existing operational knowledge, making strategic connections, generating knowledge from outside the organization (e.g. from customers, suppliers, external knowledge sources, etc.) and converting it into new products, processes and business fields.

    • Self-guidance (Sg)

      Being able to lead oneself is the prerequisite for leading others. The occupation with one's own skills and competences and the ability to reflect are elementary components.

    • Team development competence (Tdc)

      One of the most important leadership skills of the future will be to develop and accompany teams. Executives therefore also need basic tools, such as the ability to design workshops themselves for their teams. Topics such as internal team conflicts, common vision, attitudes and strength orientation should be in the foreground.

    • Incompetence compensation competence (Icc)

      "I don't need to know everything myself. I just need to know who I'm asking." Intelligent delegation and division of responsibilities instead of wanting to implement everything yourself. Away from micro-management towards design and leadership. Courage to fill a gap!

    • Dealing with new media (Me)

      Openness to new ideas is essential in leadership. This also applies to modern media. The basic principle here is: I don't have to be able to do everything, but have to have a good overview of what is available and how it relates to other aspects of my work.

3. Aggregate State "Gas" - the Soft Skills

Unlike hard skills, soft skills are less tangible and therefore harder to teach. The focus is on personal values, qualities, individual abilities, social skills that - taken together - make up a person's personality and support him or her in interacting with others and achieving goals.

Soft Skills
    • Decision-making ability (Dma)

      Large and small decisions have to be made every day. It is important to know the context, but also to make courageous decisions in order to make progress. To revise aspects that have turned out to be incorrect in the aftermath and to make new decisions.

    • Emotional intelligence (Ei); Empathy (Em)

      Emotional intelligence and empathy help us understand what lies behind the purely cognitive world. Through using our social competence and soft skills, we understand and respond to others and adopt different values and attitudes instead of fighting against them.

    • Resilience (Rs)

      Resilience is a person's ability to cope with stress or negative external influences and to see them as a challenge rather than a threat. In times of information overload, the proactive form of resilience, agility, and the passive form, robustness, are becoming increasingly important.

    • Promoting a culture of conflict (Cc) and error (Ec)

      Those who encounter conflicts openly have the chance to strengthen their relationships. The addiction to harmony and avoidance of conflicts do not make problems go aways. On the contrary, they are like an elephant in the room.

    • Problem solving competence (Psc)

      "If we really understand the problem, we no longer need a solution" (H. Gatterer, Zukunftsinstitut). Understand and anticipate problems, focus on solutions and feasible approaches.

    • Readiness to learn (Rl)

      Only those who are open to learning new things have the opportunity to develop themselves and their team. Here, too, you have to leave the comfort zone and find your way in unknown terrain. Accept and force challenges instead of avoiding them!

    • Feedback-/Feedforward capability (Ffc)

      Blind spots can only be corrected through feedback from others. Personality development and learning from mistakes can be strengthened by the ability to plan. The focus is on planning your next moves and not on focusing on the past.

    • Cross-functional thinking (Cft)

      Leaving your own comfort zone as well as thinking and working in partnerships and networks. Your added value results from the different perspectives and approaches you receive after shedding aside the silo mentality.

4. Aggregate State "Plasma" - the New Leadership Qualities

In addition to the three classical aggregate states, special leadership qualities are required under extreme conditions, as in chemistry. This is especially true in our VUCADD world (i.e. volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, diverse, dynamic world). These qualities on the one hand help to harmoniously combine one's own hard skills, methodological skills and soft skills and on the other hand highlight the mindset that is needed to bring optimal performance onto the road.

    • Openess (Op)

      As a manager, it is no longer enough to assert one's own opinion. Complex decisions can only be made meaningfully if different viewpoints and experience are taken into account. Letting employees participate in decision-making processes inspires team members, improves cooperation and promotes an open corporate culture.

    • Courage (Cou)

      Only if managers are courageous, try things out and deal constructively with their mistakes can employees dare to try new things and make mistakes. Courage is the basis for new ideas and innovation.

    • Focus (Fc)

      Managers must think in big dimensions and have the big picture in front of them at all times. This focus is necessary in order not to lose sight of their own goals in the jungle of ideas in our working world. Therefore, they need to stay focused to convey confidence in dealing with ambiguities and multi-optional situations.

    • Thirst for action (Tfa)

      In complex times, decisions must be made quickly, flexibly and with foresight: Agility is what counts. Brooding over ideas for too long or postponing topics without making a decision can harm the company.

    • Appreciation (Ap)

      People work motivated when they feel they are being taken seriously and perceive their superiors as role models.

    • Self-anchoring (Sa); Serenity (Se)

      Managers need to know their own strengths and weaknesses well in order to be authentic. They are at peace with themselves, can give up responsibility and deal with mistakes and use them for their own further development.

    • Entrepreneurship (Et); Shaping diversity (Sd)

      Managers who give up responsibility strengthen the entrepreneurial spirit of their employees. The motto is to involve your employees and turn into participants. Benefit from diversity and pluralistic approaches.

5. Aggregate State "Suprafluid": the Social Roles

In nature, suprafluidity only occurs in helium and lithium. In companies, alas, it is just as rare. Suprafluidity describes particles that are in a frictionless state: they are in a perfect equilibrium. In a team, such a suprafluid state has been achieved when it is well balanced and able to work in full flow without being hampered by conflicts or points of friction. To reach such a state, every team member has to fulfil the role that is most suitable to them and ideally complements the other team members’ roles. “In recruiting, we often talk about tasks, competences, and functions. Very few HR managers and recruiters fill team positions based on which social role is missing in a team,” Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, explains. This is a mistake as social roles in a team are just as much a part of the “periodic table of leadership” developed by Barbara Stöttinger and her team as hard and soft skills, methodological competence, and the ability to lead. The fact that this periodic table is very successfully applied in tailor-made corporate executive and team trainings bears proof to the viability of the system.

The Role is Key

When projects fail, it is often not due to a lack of expert knowledge but poorly planned, ineffective workflows and implicit conflicts of interest within a team. Among the potential causes for failure, the social roles (often unconsciously) adopted by team members are frequently overlooked and rarely analyzed by executives. In the 1970s, the British researcher Raymond Meredith Belbin developed a method for leading teams, in the process of which he identified various roles within a team. In this model, it is crucial that roles are staffed by suitable people who, as a result, can optimally exercise their talents in the position. Each role has specific strengths and weaknesses. It is key that also managers identify their own role and optimally contribute to the team according to their strengths and create the space needed for all team members to live up to their potential.

A pitfall managers should be careful to avoid is mixing up a person’s role with their personality. Roles are altered when the group makeup or conditions change as members unconsciously adopt new roles or adapt existing ones. The more consciously a team deals with its allocation of roles, the more effective it will be with regard to both roles and tasks distribution. If there are tensions and conflicts, they should be taken seriously as potential indications that there might be a serious problem with the group or its makeup. It is thus not advisable to blame individual team members as it is not unlikely that they are simply unable to use their talents in the role assigned to them.

    • The Organizer (Org)

      understands the big picture, adds a sense of direction in planning, is result-oriented and ambitious, makes sure tasks and plans are being realized.

      • Strengths: flexible and reliable, diligent team player, likes to organize things, gives things a structure
    • The Boss (Boss)

      spearheads and motivates the group, provides structure and orientation, works to create team cohesion, offers support whenever they can.

      • Strengths: proactive, willing to take risks, makes decisions, trusts team members’ strengths.
    • The Consultant (Cons)

      continuously analyzes framework conditions and gives recommendations accordingly, counsels team members.

      • Strengths: quick learner and apt at adjusting to new situations, empathetic and able to think on their feet.
    • The Enthusiast (Ent)

      creates a fun and relaxed atmosphere in the team, inspires and motivates others.

      • Strengths: a true team player, an optimist convinced of a positive outcome, can motivate others due to their strong communication skills.
    • The Artist (Art)

      asks unconventional questions, helps others gain new perspectives, acts impulsively.

      • Strengths: creative and highly communicative, open and not averse to risks, motivates others, likes to make decisions.
    • The Maker (Make)

      is always implementing steps, gets things done, not afraid of challenges, motivates others to perform at their best.

      • Strengths: resilient and disciplined, able to motivate themselves and others.
    • The Helper (Help)

      was born to help others, most comfortable acting as a caretaker, always there when help is needed.

      • Strengths: empathetic, does not shy away from difficult topics, proactively offers help, not above any task.

"The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw said something that could not be better applied to modern leadership: 'The only person who behaves wisely is my tailor. He takes a new measure every time he meets me, while everyone else always applies the old standards with the belief that they still fit today.' And the same applies to good managers. Even if, as in the periodic table, there are individual elements that make up "good leadership", leadership is also subject to constant change. And this is especially true in times of new work and digital transformation," concludes Barbara Stöttinger.

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