Understanding the Vital Difference Between Attributes and Skills

Understanding the Vital Difference Between Attributes and Skills

Have you ever found yourself assessing your own potential or that of others strictly in terms of skills? It’s a common oversight, akin to evaluating a car solely on its aesthetics rather than how it handles a variety of road conditions.

Here’s the thing—while skills are undeniably important, they don’t always tell the whole story. In fact, they might not even tell the most crucial part when it comes to performance, whether it’s in ourselves or our teams.

Real-Life Success Stories

Throughout history and across industries, individuals whose success was largely driven by their personal attributes have often stood out. Take the resilience of Nelson Mandela, who, despite 27 years in prison, led South Africa to dismantle apartheid with unparalleled grace and forgiveness. Or consider the adaptability of someone like Satya Nadella, whose leadership transformed Microsoft by prioritizing cloud computing and reinventing its culture around empathy. These stories not only illustrate the power of attributes but also show how they can lead to monumental success in varied realms.

During times of uncertainty, our skills often take a back seat

Think back to the early days of Covid, a time marked by unprecedented uncertainty and stress. Our initial challenge wasn’t about using our skills; instead, it was about figuring out how to navigate a radically changed world. Almost instinctively, we leaned on our inner strengths—attributes like adaptability, perseverance, open-mindedness, and courage.

This reliance on personal attributes isn’t unique to pandemics. Anytime life throws us into uncharted waters, whether by choice or circumstance, we’re compelled to spend time and energy to make sense of the unfamiliar. Be it a career change, a move to a new city, facing a sudden job layoff, weathering a natural disaster, or navigating global upheavals, it’s our attributes that determine how well we adapt and continue to perform.

Why Trust Is Rooted in Attributes, Not Skills

Think of someone you trust implicitly—perhaps a family member, friend, colleague, or boss. Now, consider what exactly they did to earn your trust. If you reflect on it, you might realize it’s not about the skills they possess, but more about how they’ve supported you—maybe they had your back, encouraged you to take risks, or showed genuine empathy, authenticity, and integrity.

Trust is often described as a feeling, but it’s much more than that—it’s a belief. And beliefs are feelings that we’ve thought over and justified in our minds. To trust someone, we make a conscious decision based on how they conduct themselves, which in turn, allows us to give our trust to them.

For any team or business to succeed, especially under tough conditions, a strong foundation of trust is essential. The behaviors that forge this trust—like empathy, accountability, and authenticity—are attributes, not skills. These are qualities we develop, not just learn in a traditional sense. Unlike skills, which can be observed, measured, and evaluated, the attributes that underpin trust are often invisible and challenging to quantify. It’s tough to gauge someone’s capability to build trust or to decide to trust them based solely on data or a resume.

This emphasizes the point that while skills are important, the attributes we nurture and display can play a much more significant role in establishing and maintaining trust, which is crucial for optimal performance in any setting.

Attributes: The Core of Personal Development and High Performance

Imagine someone saying, “Rich, teach me how to shoot a pistol accurately at a target.” Within a few hours at a gun range, they might master hitting the bullseye—shooting is a skill that can be taught, much like typing or driving.

But if that same person asks, “How can I become more patient or adaptable?” the response isn’t as straightforward. Attributes like patience and adaptability can’t be taught in the traditional sense. Developing these qualities requires self-motivation, self-direction, and a personal commitment to growth. When building a team, it’s crucial to seek out individuals who naturally possess the attributes you value because while you can teach skills, fostering attributes is a more complex and personal process.

High performance relies on attributes

Consider a musician acing a concert, an athlete excelling in a game, or a businessperson delivering a perfect pitch—these are moments of high performance. However, true measures of excellence aren’t necessarily observed when things go smoothly. More telling are the times when situations deviate from the plan—when the environment shifts, and everything seems to unravel.

In such moments, the limitations of relying solely on skills become evident. Skills may be inadequate in novel or unexpected situations. Instead, we rely on attributes such as adaptability, perseverance, open-mindedness, and patience. These qualities enable us to manage and excel in the face of uncertainty. While specific skills are undoubtedly required in any discipline, consistent high performance, irrespective of external conditions, hinges on the attributes one brings to the table.

Unlocking Potential: The Power of Attributes Over Skills

When we talk about potential, we’re really discussing the realm of possibilities, what could be rather than what currently is. This is particularly true in our professional and personal growth journeys, where we’re constantly in pursuit of unlocking the latent potential within ourselves and those around us.

Consider the journey of a top-seed NFL draft pick, a collegiate football sensation. Despite his impressive skills, which were further honed in training camps, he struggles to adapt to the professional leagues. The question arises: why? It wasn’t a lack of skill but rather a deficiency in the necessary attributes required for professional play, such as resilience, mental agility, and the ability to handle increased pressure and competition. Professional football, with its faster athletes, complex plays, and intense environment, demands not just advanced skills but a robust set of attributes.

Scouts often assess players based on their performances in environments that highlight their skills but can miss deeper insights into their attributes. In this draft pick’s case, his skills were evident and impressive, but his attributes, which are less visible and harder to measure, were not sufficient for the leap to the next level. This oversight led to a misjudgment of his true potential.

This example underscores a critical lesson: while skills are essential and visible markers of capability, true potential is often hidden in one’s attributes. These intrinsic qualities determine how well someone can rise to new challenges and succeed in varying circumstances, far beyond what skills alone can predict.

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Understanding the Vital Difference Between Attributes and Skills
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