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The Core 5 Work Skills Needed by Executives and Entrepreneurs

There are five work skills you need to have if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur and an executive. Some you can learn in the university — but not all. 

The Five Core Work Skills
• Leadership
• Technical
• Strategy and Tactics
• Management
• Self-Mastery

“A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.”  — Lester Thoreau, Dean, Sloan School of Management, M.I.T., 60 Minutes, February 7, 1988

Written by Murray Johannsen. I welcome connections via LinkedIn or directly on this website. And DON’T MISS OUT on insightful content on our Linkedin feeds. Themes for posts are: 21st Century Skills: What’s Needed and What’s Not; AI Savvy: Essential Skills For AI at Work; and Bootstrapping Your Dreams: Growing  Digital Business Skills.

A degree typically gives you one but not the others. For example, an engineer knows technical skills but not the other ones. Same with managers who typically lack technical skills.

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 What are the Five Most Important Work Skills?

The five core skills provide a framework to prosper in the world of 21st Century work. It’s designed to help individuals understand their strengths and correct their weaknesses.

One model that has had staying power was first published in the Harvard Business Review in the 50s by Katz. However, this model it possesses certain limitations for those who strive to:

  • Those who want to break into the executive ranks, or
  • The entrepreneur who wants to be more than a sole proprietor.

To fix this shortcoming, the Core 5 Work Skills model was developed. The three skills in the Katz model are similar, but others are different since the focus in those who wish to be an executive or an entrepreneur.

The Core Five Work Skills

Painting is symbolic of how each person in a high performing group doing their job. Notice that you have a boss in the group who is not doing anything. John George Brown (1831–1913): All Pull Together
Painting is symbolic of how each person in a high-performing group is doing their job. Notice that you have a boss in the group who is not doing anything. John George Brown (1831–1913): All Pull Together

Core Skill #1: Technical. You Can’t Prosper Without This One

“Your employee should have superior technical skills compared to you. If he doesn’t, it means you hired the wrong person.” — Jack Ma

“My sister lived in Burma and was having some wiring installed by a native electrician. Again and again, he would come to her for instructions, and finally, in exasperation, she said, “You know what I want done. Why don’t you use your common sense and do it?” He made a grave bow and said, “Madam, common sense is a rare gift of God. I have only a technical education.” — Carl Compton in The Public Speaker’s Treasure Chest

Example of a technical tool. X-Ray crystallography is a tool used for identifying the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal. Image at: Kaspar Kallip
Example of a technical tool. X-Ray crystallography is a tool used for identifying the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal. Image at: Kaspar Kallip

Ignoring climate change, the most dominant force affecting work and skills needed are AI and machine learning. It promises great opportunity for those with the right set of expertise and skills and great peril for everyone else. 

The importance of technology in the mix of organizational skill-sets cannot be overestimated. In fact, a Brookings Institution study showed that in almost all career categories, the necessity of IT skills has been going up. In fact, a robust set of technical skills may lower the likelihood of being replaced or let go.

A man working on a machine in the early part of the mid-20th century. Source: U.S. Gov’t. War Department. Office of Indian Affairs. Technology is still a tool, whether it is a hammer, a WIFI network, a gun, or artificial intelligence. Throughout your career, you will need to update your technical expertise. 

Assuming you have the right mix of technological competencies, what else does one need? If you answered leadership, give yourself an A. If you think transformational leadership, give yourself an A+.

Click To Access More Information on 21st Century Technical Skills

Core Work Skill #2:  Leadership: Still Needed in the 21st Century

“Today’s business graduates have an abundance of technical knowledge. They can do linear programming, calculate a discounted rate of return, develop a sophisticated marketing plan, and crunch numbers on a computer spreadsheet. They’re technically solid, but most lack the interpersonal and social skills necessary to lead people. — Robbins, S. (1989)

Image by Lumaxart
Image by Lumaxart Rather than using the general term human relations, the Core Five uses the term leadership. Entrepreneurs and executives have extremely important leadership roles, whether they want to perform them or not. 

My father had a simple test that helps me measure my own leadership quotient: When you are out of the office he once asked me, does your staff carry on remarkable well without you?” Martha Peak, 1992

“You manage things. You lead people.” — Grace Hopper, USN, Rear Admiral

“Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men — the other 999 follow women.” — Groucho Marx

Great individuals typically are transformational leaders. And business founders have to have to possess leadership savvy to build a group of strangers into a high-performance team while making continuous improvement the norm. Yet many leaders have flaws preventing much forward progress.

Transformational leadership is desirable if executives are to transition their organizations through change and innovation. That said, many c-level executives in bureaucratic organizations prefer the status quo.

Skill Set 3: Strategy and Tactics

“Looking for differences between the more productive and less productive organizations, we found that the most striking difference is the number of people who are involved and feel responsible for solving problems.” — Michael McTague, Management and training consultant, Personnel Journal, March 1986

A classic symbol for the game of business, chess requires one to think ahead more than one move and to anticipate the moves of others an important element of competitive strategy and tactics. Image by: Mutante
The conceptual domain of Strategy and Tactics is a term borrowed from the military. Nothing wrong with being a theory wonk writing a scholarly work few will read. But it’s the ability to execute that makes for a great entrepreneur and executive. 


“The most dominant executive decision will be decisions under uncertainty.” — Henry Tosi and Stephen Carroll (1976)

You see books on this from time to time such as Bossidy’s 2002 book “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” and the all time classic: Sun Tzu’s (650 B.C.) “Art of War” — a book still read by many business people in Asia.

Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868), Washington Crossing the Delaware
Painting by Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868), Washington Crossing the Delaware. An example of strategy in that he was able to take Hussien troops by surprise and thus win a key battle in the Revolutionary War.

Strategy originates from military doctrine, getting drummed into both officers and NCOs as essential to achieving any objective. Those who were exposed to military thinking will recognize the importance of this dimension immediately. Essentially, it’s knowing what to do and doing it. 

Operational strategy consists of three elements: first defining a current state and then the desired state. Once those two are fleshed out, time to come up with a plan to close the gap. Sounds easy — but it is not. It is an extremely challenging endeavor in a complex, rapidly changing world to understand what to do and get it done.


One day a neighbor happens to walk by and see his friend Nasrudin in his garden looking for something so he asks, “Nasrudin, what have you lost?” “My key,” said Nasrudin. “Exactly where did you drop the key?” “In my house.” “Then why are you looking here for your key?” “There is more light here than in my house. 

Tactics are woven into strategy. You might say good tactics rely on sound strategy. But while strategy is static, tactics are dynamic, changing, evolving. They exist in time, in a certain context, and require one to stay adaptable and flexible. 

Strategy and tactics are largely conceptual skills dealing with the ability to use mental heuristics and relevant paradigms to solve problems and make decisions. 

Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel
Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. Known as the Desert Fox, he was no fool when it comes to strategy. But what really made him exceptional was tactics. His ability to adjust in the moment in the middle of the fog of war.

When tactics are done well, we see flawless implementation. But too often we see sound strategy falling apart due to flawed tactics.

I’m convinced that many are blind to strategy, walking like a drunk down a road where they are really can barely see what the next step will be — let alone take it. 

Core Work Skill 4: Management Ability

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants to be done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Theodore Roosevelt, 26th American President

[Referring to his managerial counterparts in local government:] How would you like to run a business where your top management can change every two years, your revenue can depend on the whims and fancies of state and national government, and you have to convince more than half a million people that you can collect garbage, control crime, enhance safety, and brighten the future better than anyone else?” — Anonymous executive, Chief Executive, Winter 1982-1983

It is pretty much impossible to be an executive or an entrepreneur without the ability to manage. The b-schools have a point, organizations, projects, processes, resources, and money needs management.  In this painting, can you identify the manager?

Management is Different From Leadership. Many of you will go, “Well, duh.”  But what is obvious to a few is not so obvious to the many.  You still hear really intelligent people talk about “managing people.” But most people don’t want to be managed, they want to be led.

Management will change a great deal in the 21st Century. Partly, this has to do with how to manage in an AI world. Take one example, whether one does process or project work. In start-ups, almost everything is a project. In a bureaucracy, almost everything is a process.

Take hiring for example. Government has a well-defined set of steps that require 3 months minimum. While in a start-up, there is no process whatsoever so everything can get done in a couple of days. Jobs with many repeatable processes ARE SUBJECT TO AUTOMATION.

Stay Away from Process Work 

Since the days of reengineering, process improvement was used as a way to eliminate labor. For once a process is defined and stable, automation becomes likely. For example, it takes 5 steps to cook a hamburger paddy, it’s clearly something a machine can do. If it’s 105 steps, it is something AI’s potentially can do.

Strive For Project Work

The reason you want project work is simple. Variation creates a more difficult environment for automation. Project managers’ got to be good in technical, managerial, leadership, and strategy and tactics skills. And it really wouldn’t hurt to have self-mastery skills as well. 

Since administrators love processes, large companies are going to be able to automate standardized processes quicker than smaller ones. It’s one reason you should open up an entrepreneurial income stream.

5. Self-Mastery: A Timeless Skill More Important Now Than Ever

“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

“Know Thyself”– Attributed to Pythagoras, Plutarch, Socrates, and Thales. Also, the words found at the entrance of the most famous of the ancient Greek temples: The Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Self-mastery was added to address a major blind spot in most people. Few know their weaknesses; and even if known, are clueless about how to decrease them. For how can one achieve success if one possesses numerous weaknesses or heaven forbid, a fatal flaw

You might say, the real key to success may be where you are not looking. We are all forever unfinished works. We are imperfect, we have weaknesses, lack knowledge, have not built the skills.

This was driven home in a recent book by Marshall Goldsmith called, “What Got You Here, won’t’ Get You There.” In this book, he documented twenty-one major faults within CEOs. Things like:

  • Failing to give recognition,
  • Making excuses,
  • Acting like you know it all, and
  • Not listening.

Many of these are relatively simple behaviors, one mom should have taught them when they were kids. But when one is in power, even small faults become noticed, magnified, and discussed by underlings. Impatience as an engineer is barely noticed, but in the vice-president of engineering, it’s a major problem. To fix them, you need competencies in the skill of self-mastery. 

This area consists of development factors necessary to “Be All You Can Be.”

It’s a skill-set not covered at all in business schools or technology programs. Even those with a psychology degree typically do not know how to make their minds run better. Typically, what goes unseen gets neglected.


Remember, what makes the 21st Century unique is something that has never happened before — our machines are learning. So it makes sense to up your game and really gets serious about learning as well. 

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First Published on March 27, 2014. Last update: November 5, 2023,

Work Skills For the 21st Century