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Is it time to give up on Leadership Competencies?

Very few organisations today are without a leadership competency model. In fact, it is often a requirement made of firms that are bidding for work with other companies that they specify their leadership model when they submit tenders, no doubt as a means to demonstrate that they understand leadership and have competent leaders. Competency models are used by organisations as a means to assess and develop managers, and are an integral part of their performance management system. The ubiquitous use of competency models is testament to the belief that the characteristics of successful managers and leaders can be sufficiently precisely specified, and that once this is done aspiring employees can learn to adopt such competences and become more effective as a result. One can argue that the no1. competency required of today’s managers is a belief in the value of competency models.

Yet, the whole concept of leadership competency models is not without its critics. Before I started work in this industry (back in 1996) I recall attending the annual British psychological Society division of occupational psychology conference at which there was a keynote debate about the value of such competencies. It was not without some irony that at one stage the speaker in favour of competency models pointed out that his opponent in the debate was a principal in a firm that had a profitable business creating competency models for its clients. In short, the HR industry has had a great run with competency models. But given that competency models, particularly for leadership, have been around for at least 20 to 30 years should we not expect that leadership within organisations has greatly improved, to the point perhaps where such models are now redundant?

The literature on leadership appears to expand exponentially with a continual movement towards coming up with ever more sophisticated notions of the concept. Charismatic leadership has given way to situational leadership, followed quickly by transformational leadership, servant leadership, agile leadership, adaptive leadership, heroic leadership, authentic leadership and now even “anti-heroic” leadership. Back in 1973 the management scholar Henry Mintzberg published his book “The nature of managerial work”. In 2009, he was still writing about the same theme. He concludes in the book “Managing” that the excessive promotion of leadership has demoted everything else. Leaders are held up as heroes isolated from their followers who have to be driven, inspired, or supported to perform. In short, the focus on leaders is a facet of a society that has become highly individualistic – where success is seen to be a product of some superhuman combination of characteristics that any ambitious employee must embrace without question.

No doubt that some of the hype around leadership has been created as organisations strive for some kind of competitive advantage in a world where “talent” is seen as something that is short supply. However, there are a variety of problems associated with current leadership competency models and frameworks that suggest organisations will eventually have to abandon this approach. Here are some ways in which competency models are causing and will cause problems.

  1. Firstly, the leadership competency models of organisations are often extremely similar. The key components of such models generally include variations on the following: vision, strategic thinking, cultural/political awareness, drive and ambition, intellect, influencing skills, and delivery. Given the similarity of such models it is hard to see how any organisation achieves competitive advantage through its leadership skills.
  2. Secondly, organisations frequently generate competency models that are highly complicated. In order to meet the requirements of multiple divisions, multiple levels, and possibly multiple cultures different combinations of competences are needed. The more complex the competency model the more difficult it becomes to apply in practice. Managers find assessing subordinates against many different variables onerous. The definition of the different competences is frequently confusing and sometimes blatantly circular. For example a charismatic leader might be defined simply as somebody “who has charisma”.
  3. Thirdly, competency models are put to a variety of frequently conflicting uses. The same competency model will be used to assess performance and to provide a framework for management development. Since managers are always keen to ensure they receive positive performance ratings, they become skilled in doing and saying things that will convince others that they possess the relevant leadership competences. The obvious problem arises when the conversation switches to development because such managers have been found to have no deficiencies in any of the relevant areas.
  4. Fourthly, in focusing so narrowly on the characteristics of an individual, competency models neglect the complex relational dynamics that occur between the leader and his or her followers. Leadership always occurs in a context, and that context is dominated by the characteristics of the people that the leader is attempting to lead. Competency models typically pay no heed to the demands, needs, characters, or history of the team. They therefore miss out the vital dimension that may make a difference between success and failure.
  5. Lastly, competency models are essentially backward looking. They assume that the future will be pretty similar to the past, and that what made a successful leader historically will continue to do so. But given the rapidly changing competitive environment, it is quite reasonable to assume that yesterday’s competencies for leadership success are not going to be the same as those of tomorrow. Organisations that realise this problem find themselves abandoning more specific competencies in favour of a generic model where competencies are little better than general virtues that one would hope for in any employee.

In summary, the use of competency models, and especially leadership competency models is conceptually flawed. Much as “performance appraisals” have proved impossible to get right for most organisations, leadership competency models are failing to deliver the results promised. Organisational HR departments are consigned to tinker with them forever in an effort to make them work. What then is the alternative?

We believe that what is needed is a more complex and nuanced understanding of human capability coupled with greater clarity about the complexity of leadership roles at different levels of organisation. The seeds of that understanding can be found in the work by Otto Laske on the Constructive Developmental Framework (CDF) and the work of Eliot Jaques on Requisite Organisation – more on both of those to follow.