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Forget the competency models: leadership starts with the leader

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Image: Forget the competency models: leadership starts with the leaderLeadership competency models, although apparently a good idea, hinder rather than help individuals in the development of their leadership capabilities.

Given the sound history of modelling in so many other spheres and disciplines, it would seem that extending this kind of benchmarking to leadership ought to be beneficial. Yet this thinking is fundamentally flawed. Leadership competency models inhibit leadership development.


The value and benefits of management development

Since Frederick Taylor's pioneering work in the management of organizations, great strides have been made in designing and developing effective and efficient ways of organizing the efforts of people to produce results.

Both practical and academic education teach managers many truly effective lessons in how to marshal resources for the benefit of everyone, from customers and shareholders to employees.

Few people are able, intuitively, to know how to meet all of the complex demands of being a manager. So marketing strategies, HR policies, financial and information systems, and many more aids to doing the managerial job have been vital elements in the growth of businesses and public sector institutions that deliver value and wealth to the community.

The success of such tools, methods and models in helping managers to manage is one reason why many people seeking to develop leaders assume that similar tools, methods and models will be appropriate in leadership development.

Research into leadership

Few people try to deliver leadership development by plucking ideas out of nowhere. Anyone who takes development seriously will have looked at research into leadership. Two classic kinds of research into leadership are those based on the lessons that can be learnt from a specific leader, activity or event (focused), and those that can be learnt from a wide-ranging exploration of leadership in many different fields and contexts (broad-based).

Focused research into what real leaders do or have done uses a narrower definition of "leadership", concentrating upon leaders whose behaviours are sufficiently alike to enable patterns to be defined. This produces a model of the "ideal" leader-as-hero, or leader-as-consultant, or leader-as-explorer, or even leader-as-best-mate.

As one example of this approach, in the book Inspiring Leadership, based on lessons learnt from the BT Global Challenge Round the World Yacht Race, the authors draw on what the race can teach us to "identify the key attributes and skills that make effective leaders stand out from the crowd[…]". This book is typical of many, linking lessons of leadership to mountain climbing, field sports, or aerobatics teams.

In some cases, these lessons are worked up into leadership competency models, tools or instruments that seek to identify how closely real people actually match up to the ideals illustrated in the book or story. From there, developers try to teach real people how to emulate this ideal.

Broad-based research recognizes that leaders are different, and is used to develop models of leadership that take "the best" from the lessons of this wide range of leaders. An example of this approach is The Way to Win by Will Carling and Robert Heller. Drawing from a wide range of sources both in sport and business, the authors tell a variety of different leadership stories.

The authors extrapolate from these very different stories and conclude that "leadership ability is founded on five strengths that are inward […] [and] which achieve their effect through […] five outward processes". It is a simple step from here to define leadership development as helping individuals develop these ten strengths and/or processes. Once again, a favoured method for doing this is to build a leadership competency model based on ten such qualities.

Why blueprints do not work for leadership

The problem is that leadership development that is based on these kinds of research does quite the reverse of what it sets out to do. It prevents leaders from developing their leadership. Instead it develops their ability to follow. By starting with blueprints based on what other leaders do, this approach encourages potential leaders to copy, not to lead.

Models based upon the narrowly defined "leader-as-sailor" or "leader-as-mountaineer" try to teach real people how to emulate an ideal but they lose along the way, the potential leadership of all those who do not comfortably fit into a "leader-as-x" category.

"Leaders are different, not only from the people around them, but also from each other. So why are so many people who say they are in the field of 'leadership development' (or even 'leadership training') unable to grasp this simple fact?"

Starting with the broad-based model, other developers try to teach people how to become all things to all people, being at the same time strong-willed and absorbent to the ideas of others; determined and flexible; tough and caring; decisive and consultative; responsible and radical. Mother Theresa and Vlad the Impaler rolled into one.

This may be good management development, but it is not leadership development. Ironically, a great deal of what well-meaning professionals are doing in the name of leadership development is stifling that very leadership. Nascent talent in promising individuals is smothered by such "competency models", 360° instruments, and well-researched lists of the "habits" of other leaders.

Learning from leaders

Think of a few leaders. Now consider the question, "Are they just like the people around them?" Most people's answer will be "No". If these leaders were just like the people around them, then the chances are that they wouldn't have been leaders. They'd have been – well, just like everyone else.

Gandhi led successfully because, unlike other Indian radicals, he didn't fight the Raj; Roosevelt led successfully because he didn't buy into the "rugged individualism" that so many of his peers thought was the only defence against totalitarianism; Bill Gates led successfully because he didn't believe that there was only one "environment"; while Martin Luther King led successfully because rather than listen to colleagues who advocated militancy, he made people believe in a dream.

Leaders are different, not only from the people around them, but also from each other. So why are so many people who say they are in the field of "leadership development" (or even "leadership training") unable to grasp this simple fact? Why do they continue to try to develop "leaders" by trying to make people just like someone else? It would appear that the answer to this lies in the well-intentioned but mistaken belief that models are as suited to leadership as they are to management.

Unlike management, leadership starts with the leader. His or her character and values are the foundations from which he or she can, with integrity and honesty, make decisions, exercise discretion and take action. Leaders are neither right nor wrong. They are, when effective, influential and persuasive, and they create the environment in which their decisions work. They work because, believing in their leaders, those who follow them make sure that they work.

If not competency models, then what?

Who taught Bill Gates to be so devastatingly competitive, or Sir John Harvey-Jones to be so responsible, or Ricardo Semler to be so collegiate, or Richard Branson to be so adventurous?

If these and the leaders referred to earlier have anything in common, it is that each acted with integrity. Each of them truly believed in what they said and did, even though those beliefs were, in many cases, fundamentally different from the beliefs of others, including those of other successful leaders. Moreover, their beliefs and values were reflected in their character. Character and values pointed in the same direction, with the result that, whether they were liked or loathed, they were consistent and effective.

Being a leader is not taking on a role – it is personal. Leadership development, to be effective, has to be personal. Development that starts with the needs of an organization, or with the "values/mission statement" of an organization, or with a competency model is not leadership development. It may have a very important role to play, but it is something else.

To unleash the leadership potential in an organization, you have to come from the opposite direction, and genuinely put the individual first. The developer's role is to help identify, explore, and unlock the talents of very different characters, and then to help meld those characters into an integrated whole; one in which individuals do not try to become people they are not, but in which those fundamental differences of character can be brought together into a more effective combination.

Developing leaders in organizations

The problem with this approach, however, is that by starting with and building upon each individual separately, leadership developers potentially let loose a Tower of Babel of potentially conflicting beliefs and values. Why should any organization make an investment in people whose beliefs may be contrary to each others' and possibly even those espoused by the organization?

The answer is that any organization, big or small, has the potential to benefit from releasing the energies, the beliefs, and the capabilities of all kinds of leaders – warriors, sages, adventurers and guardians alike. Another of the key attributes of a successful leadership developer is the ability to help individuals and groups to draw upon the resources of disparate and diverse individuals to share ways forward that benefit from this very diversity.

Effective leadership development demands a set of skills and an approach, which is diametrically opposed to those suited to training, or even to management development. Leadership development is not management education for the more senior; it is an entirely different territory in which to be effective, a practitioner has to throw away the tools and techniques acquired from years of training.
True leadership development has to be centred on individuals, not blueprints, or competency models, or any other hoops you want people to jump through. If you want to help develop leaders, throw away your competency models and stop trying to teach.

November 2011.


This is a shortened version of "Throw away that leadership competency model", which originally appeared in Industrial and Commercial Training, Volume 43 Number 3, 2011.

The author is Keith Patching.