leadership competencies

Leadership competencies are dead

You don’t have to look far to find the latest 'definitive' list of leadership competencies.

Yet the more of these lists we see, and the longer they grow, the further away we get from any real sense of what leadership might be; the more exact and prescriptive the elements, the less space they leave for the human, the ironic, the contingent in leadership.

In this short blog Impact’s Richard Little argues that these are not leadership-competencies at all, they are just competence-competencies – and, ironically, the one big thing missing from them is leadership.

For a definitive list of leadership competencies, we need look no further than a book of that name by Suhaka and Jorgensen (S&J). They offer 121 ‘definitive leadership competencies’ that include ‘leverage diversity’, ‘keep work fun’ and ‘conduct workforce planning’. But wait! It looks like they may have missed some out, the Human Resource Systems Group (HRSG) also publish definitive leadership competencies, but they include several items missing from S&J. For example: ‘Delegates responsibility rather than taking charge or micro-managing when staff have the capability’. And then there is Lominger – there seem to be several competencies in their list that are at variance with both S&J and HRSG. What are we to think? All we wanted was a neat set of definitions so that we knew exactly what leadership is, exactly which bits of leadership we were missing and which bits needed developing. Instead we get an argument. In fact we get a fragmented, atomised description of a certain stereotype of the macho leader who, according to S&J ‘sets expectations, sets goals, sets priorities, sets strategy, sets the vision’ and then, when everything is safely set, ‘empowers others’. This guy is superhuman. And it is a guy, because in all three sets of competencies a majority of terms and collocations are demonstrably gendered – that is, words and phrases that tend to be applied more readily, all other things being equal, to men than to women.

The longer the list, the further away we get from any real sense of what leadership might be; the more exact and prescriptive the elements, the less space they leave for the human, the ironic, the contingent in leadership. These are not leadership-competencies at all, they are just competence-competencies – lists of things we’d like to be able to do, things we’d like to be able to measure, things that mitigate, but do not answer, the perplexing uncertainties of organisation and human interactions. The one big thing missing from them is leadership.

By all means lets pursue definitions of competence that help people function in complex, demanding and constantly changing workplaces, let's work out what might help people deal with the ambiguities and uncertainties of a frankly scary world. But let's not pretend that they are the route to leadership. The only competencies required for leadership are the wisdom to see what must be done, the courage to do it and the compassion and humour to do it with kindness and for the good of all.

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Read more about Impact's approach to Leadership

Visit Suhaka & Jorgensen's website for information about their Definitive Leadership Competencies Guide