Fluency + Leadership=Acumen

The job of corporate leaders and training professionals is to help develop emerging leaders to the point that they can be seen as possessing acumen.

By Alan Shelton

Some weeks ago, I was on the faculty of an internal leadership institute for a $10 billion company with 56,000 employees. One of the beauties built into this process was CEO and CEFO gave the first two presentations to the 32 up-and-coming managers who had been hand selected. And at the end of these presentations, the new leaders were given a chance to ask questions of these seasoned executives. I looked on with great interest as they were asked, “How does leadership development relate to competency training?” Now that’s a subject in which I am deeply interested.

You see, I had been invited to participate for the very first time in this program, which has a history of some 15 years. My topic was financial fluency and leadership development. My biography will make this choice of subject clear. I have spent the majority of my career as a nuts- and-bolts executive. I started at Pricewaterhouse as a merger and acquisition specialist with the required CPA. From that platform, I created a large merger and acquisition practice and later went on to be the CFO and CEO of several companies. In all of this, I worked hard to develop my own internal leadership qualities that I had always felt were interwoven companions in corporate participation. As a result of this background, I am regularly asked to access leadership development through competencies that my clients would like to see further developing their companies.

My experience is that leadership development endows the budding executive with an ability to stand within corporate action and facilitate outcomes. I often refer to this facilitation as “holding space.” For it is in the developed presence of a great leader that the magic of business seems to occur. But there is another important talent every leader must possess: They must know their stuff. For within the space they hold lie the particulars they must understand. These same particulars are the nuts and bolts of the management and operations of any given business. In my way of looking at things, great outcomes emerge from both disciplined drill-down depth and the presence of leaders who have been entrusted with the soul of the company.

So it is with great interest that I waited with all the other leaders in the room as these senior executives were asked the difference between leadership and competency. And the answer did surprise me. Competency was easy to explain. The response simply underscored that the mastery of the details of one’s specialty formed the basics of competency. And further, as an executive became more seasoned, the holding of competency widened itself more and more. This part of the answer was as expected. However, the response to the second question was more surprising. In this case, the CEO and CFO had a difficult time describing exactly what the nature of leadership is. And in the end, I heard it finally described as something intangible, but that you would know it when you found it. It was in this moment that I understood we still see leadership as something not directly related to the hard work of creating outcomes.

Now you might think that such a discovery might be a disappointment for someone who makes a living intertwining the two concepts. In fact, my position is that either piece—leadership or competency—can be found in the other. And when, in fact, that is the case, the result is what I normally refer to as “acumen.” I often define acumen as the perfect balance between developed competency and developed leadership. But the reality is that in our corporate world we historically have held these two processes as somehow separate.

When I wrote my book, “Awakened Leadership,” I knew I was breaking a new path to suggest an all-inclusive world containing a person’s internal development. The fact that I located this internal development on the corporate playing field was a surprise to many who hold the old bifurcated model. My passion in corporate life lies in the observation that many of us who consider ourselves corporate creatures are also deeply profound individuals seeking our highest internal development. But something new has arisen since the book was written, and I am eagerly taking advantage of that new occurrence. I never imagined that a competency such as financial expertise would not be seen as part and parcel of the seasoning of all leaders. But as you can see from the response to a simple question, we hold that development of competency as separate, as well. So now I find myself offering up access to internal personal development through the door held eagerly open called financial fluency.

But here is the secret that we all as leadership and training resources should embrace. Our job is to help develop emerging leaders to the point that they can be seen as possessing acumen. It is the fully developed executive, manager, and leader that we should all hold as the highest possibility. And while we’re at it, we have a little reeducation to do. For leadership as the container of the particulars of competency is not in any way, shape, or form an intangible. It is a necessary component of the highest form of leadership and fluency resulting in corporate acumen.

Alan Shelton is the author of “Awakened Leadership.” After decades of managing and advising large multinational companies, as well as the type of early stage organizations that launched his successful career, Shelton migrated to leadership coaching. Having experienced his own awakening, he began to ignite others who want to live authentically in the global corporate world, supporting them to deconstruct the assumptions that conceal the doorway to living as the awakened self. Find out more at www.alanshelton.com 

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.