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Core Competencies of Leadership

Core Competencies of Leadership – You decide.

“The truth is that no one factor makes a company admirable.  But if you were forced to pick the one that makes the most difference, you’d pick leadership.” (Warren Bennis 1998)

Leadership – one of the great enigmas in the modern world.  Everyone has their own view and opinion of what it is, and what it isn’t.

In truth, there’s very little that we don’t actually know about leadership.  It has to be one of the most researched areas in business, being highly prized in any organisation, as identified by Bennis all those years ago.

If you enter ‘leadership’ in your search engine, you will see many, many books, courses and hundreds of definitions; as well as many ‘Top ten attributes…’,’The definitive list of leadership behaviours…’, ‘The Top 5 things all leaders must have….’, etc., etc.  The majority of this information will contain the same core values, attributes and behaviours – but each one claiming that theirs is the ‘best’ or definitive description.

Most leadership theories and models, or our studies and understanding of them, can be traced back to early or mid-20th Century research by the classical behavioural, sociology and leadership theorists.  Their original concept is usually given a modern twist or adapted using current business terminology, and then sold as ‘the’ new idea.  In truth, there is nothing new out there – it just seems new because it’s probably the first time it’s been seen or heard at that time.  One of the real problems with leadership is – gaining agreement on what actually makes it good.  This is often approached by identifying the main competencies that good leaders demonstrate or possess.

Our definition of competency is often derived from Prof. Richard Boyatzis’ book ‘The Competent Manager: A model for effective performance’ (1982) which had considerable influence on the Human Resource profession and defining competency systems.  He states:  ‘Competency is an underlying characteristic of an employee (i.e. a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image, social role or a body of knowledge) which results in effective and/or superior performance’.   In general a competency is a set of related behaviours that:

  • Impact job performance
  • Can be measured against established standards; and
  • Can be improved through training and development

Competencies are always described as observable, measurable behaviours.  I always view this as two basic questions: ‘What do excellent people do?; and ‘What does excellent look like?’

Which brings us back to the identifying our core leadership competencies.  Unfortunately, if academia and the ordinary business world cannot fully agree on pinning down one of the many guises of leadership styles as the best (Trait, Transformational, Servant, Situational, VUCA, Emotional Intelligence, VED Principle, etc.,) then it can be said the same for identifying the competencies needed, as there are many. 

In the main, just like leadership – adaptability is key, and a ‘no one size fits all’ approach should be understood depending on the organisation, structure and market Each will be applied to suit the situation, the business, the environment. The best style or competencies needed in a government institution may not be the best in a Dot.com company and vice-versa.

The grid/matrix below highlights some typical organisational structures and some possible core leadership competencies required for each.

External- focusedCompetitiveAction Orientation Business AcumenCustomer EngagementResults FocusCommunicationEntrepreneurialFlexibilityInnovationLeading ChangeTechnical ExpertiseVision & Strategy
Internal-focusedStructured Decision Making Project Management Self-Management Planning & Strategy Talent ManagementCollaborative Collaboration Communication Conflict Management Developmental Leadership Interpersonal Effectiveness Leading Others

On the highly-interactive seminar ‘Building Leadership Core Competencies: Self-understanding, Building Relationships and Leading Organizations’ the many facets of leadership and the corresponding competencies are explored, examined and put into practical use.  This equips those attending to make their own judgement gleaned from the expert and pragmatic insights into answering their own two key questions, applicable to their own self-awareness and work situation: ‘What do excellent leaders do?’ and ‘What does an excellent leader look like’.


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