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“Cognitive Skills and Leadership Performance” by Mumford et al. Essay (Article)

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

Cognitive skills and leadership performance: The nine critical skills. Michael D. Mumford, Erin Michelle Todd, Cory Higgs, Tristan McIntosh. The Leadership Quarterly. Vol. 28, 2017.

In their article, Mumford, Todd, Higgs, and McIntosh explore the complexity of people’s performance when taking up leadership roles. The researchers note that while leadership has been gaining much attention in terms of effective exercise of interpersonal influence, different aspects of this concept have yet to be investigated. According to the authors, modern literature on management focuses on four metamodels:

  1. Leader as a teacher (transformational leadership) and leader-follower exchange;
  2. Leader as a politician (charismatic leadership) and interpersonal rewarding and appraisal;
  3. Leader as a warrior (championing leader) and leader ethics;
  4. Leader as a problem solver (leader initiating structure) and leader wisdom.

Out of all these models, the one that has been receiving the least traction as compared to the rest is that of the leader as a problem solver. This tendency is not unreasonable: problem-solving skills require a certain level of intelligence — a personal characteristic whose nature is still debatable.

Since the leader as a problem solver is the least explored leadership metamodel, Mumford et al. aim at identifying cognitive faculties that allow a person to take up respective roles. The researchers conducted a systematic review of recent literature on cognitive abilities and leadership and outlined nine essential skills:

  1. problem definition. In order to identify a problem, a leader needs to set out on an extensive search for internal and external information about the situation;
  2. cause/goal analysis. A leader must think in terms of why something needs to be done: it is encouraged that he or she seeks out causes that have vast effects and can lead to large outcomes;
  3. constraint analysis. It is only reasonable to outline goal constraints, labor constraints, resource constraints, and system capability constraints;
  4. planning. One of the most valuable skills that a leader may have is the ability to create a mental simulation of future action;
  5. forecasting. Mumford et al. note that in general, people are not good at making predictions, and a leader with such a skill would have a competitive advantage;
  6. creative thinking. Mumford et al. argue that the ability to generate a vast number of ideas is linked to outstanding performance in leadership roles;
  7. idea evaluation. After brainstorming, it is vital that a leader can discern feasible ideas from those that are bound to fail;
  8. wisdom. Wisdom has a lot to do with a leader’s personality: his or her personal awareness, self-reflection faculties, and resilience in the face of uncertainty;
  9. sensemaking/visioning. A good leader does not only have a plan but also a vision — a shared philosophy that adds value to everything that his or her team is creating.

Mumford et al. note that many studies have revealed a positive association between intelligence and leader emergence. However, it remains unclear if these findings are of any use in practical management and human resource development. If intelligence is strictly hereditary, then there is pessimistic predetermination as to who is destined to be a leader. On the other hand, skills and knowledge can be acquired, and the outcome might depend on a person’s effort and resilience. Mumford et al. are convinced that cognitive skills can be developed and refined even later in life. According to the researchers, the role of a leader is incomplete if it does not entail the aforementioned skills — forecasting, planning, sensemaking, and others. Thus, it is safe to say that there is a need to provide comprehensive training for those in leadership roles so that they could improve respective faculties.

Mumford et al. describe several techniques that may be used to help leaders to unlock their full potential. First, they could be working on practical tasks — for instance, training participants could be given a series of cases to solve. By doing so, they would be able to analyze problems in different contexts and monitor and harness their mental processes. Apart from training techniques, one of the most important recommendations that Mumford et al. give in their article is to build a network within and outside an organization. Leaders should understand that no matter how outstanding their cognitive abilities are, they cannot and should not handle all the issues single-handedly. The majority of the skills listed in the article require drawing as much information as possible. Planning, making decisions, creating a shared vision, and forecasting are nigh on impossible without drawing data from the environment. Thus, it is imperative that a leader builds and sustains meaningful relationships with his or her followers to ensure communication and access to valuable information.

The UAE organizations could benefit from considering the implications of the present study. In recent years, many firms and companies have been working on implementing the concept of total quality management (TQM). TQM aims at improving managers’ and employees’ engagement at all levels. Simply put, in the context of the said concept, people are to explore possibilities beyond their usual scope of responsibilities and initiate change and innovation. At that, two ideas from the article by Mumford et al. could be put to good use. First, those working for the UAE organizations could feel empowered by the fact that intelligence is not something finite. Instead, at any point of their lives, humans can become a better version of themselves. Second, the UAE organizations could host trainings that would help to develop independent learning and promote collaboration, as noted in the article.

For all its advantages, the metamodel described by Mumford et al. has certain drawbacks. First, the researchers acknowledge that examining the mentioned skills separately barely makes any sense. In the real world, people do not alternate between different faculties — instead, they use an integrated set without much awareness of the process. Thus, the question arises as to how to organize corporate training sessions so that they could target all skills at once. This leads to the second crucial point in criticizing the model. If there is so much collinearity between the factors (planning skills, forecasting skills, and others), it is not clear how to measure a single person’s faculties. Third, Mumford et al. admit that there has yet to be conclusive research that would reveal a correlation between the presence of the skills analyzed and actual leadership performance. In the absence of such studies, human resource development specialists might not have a clue as to what skills to focus on first. Lastly, from a practical standpoint, training sessions are both challenging and time-consuming. Many people may find themselves not motivated enough to proceed with continuing education and changing themselves.

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