I must confess I am not a great fan of the popular focus on long lists of leadership competencies and their use in everything from leadership training to executive recruiting. I look at the long list of competencies that supposedly make up a good leader and feel totally uninspired. First of all they seem to be one word platitudes and secondly, I’ve never met anyone with all these “competencies”. It’s more like a wish list or a Greek myth than a useful way to develop or find good leaders.
Competencies, in the most general terms, are “things” that an individual must demonstrate to be effective in a job, role, function, task, or duty. These “things” include job-relevant behavior (what a person says or does that results in good or poor performance), motivation (how a person feels about a job, organization, or geographic location), and technical knowledge/skills (what a person knows/demonstrates regarding facts, technologies, a profession, procedures, a job, an organization, etc.). Competencies are identified through the study of jobs and roles. -from Harvard University Competency Dictionary.
Here’s a typical list of competencies, again from the Harvard’s Competency Dictionary:
- Aligning Performance for Success
- Applied Learning
- Building a Successful Team
- Building Customer Loyalty
- Building Partnerships
- Building Positive Working Relationships (Teamwork/Collaboration)
- Building Trust
- Continuous Learning
- Contributing to Team Success
- Customer Focus
- Decision Making
- Developing Others
- Facilitating Change
- Formal Presentation
- Gaining Commitment
- Information Monitoring
- Initiating Action (Initiative)
- Leading/Living The Vision And Values
- Managing Conflict
- Managing Work (Includes Time Management)
- Meeting Leadership
- Meeting Participation
- Planning and Organizing
- Quality Orientation (Attention to Detail)
- Risk Taking
- Safety Awareness
- Sales Ability/Persuasiveness
- Strategic Decision Making
- Stress Tolerance
- Technical/Professional Knowledge and Skills
- Valuing Diversity
- Work Standards
Whew ! I’m exhausted just reading the list.
Obviously, no one fulfills all these competencies and not every job in an organisation calls for these traits. But many of the lists of leadership competencies I have seen inside of organisations contain many (many) of these. Finding someone who displays even a fraction of these is a tough job.
And they certainly all can’t have the same level of importance, in fact it should be obvious that some traits matter more than others. But which ones.
According to Daniel Goleman in a Harvard Business Review article, The Must Have Leadership Skill, he believes emotional intelligence trumps all the other skills.
IBM recently surveyed 1,700 CEOs from 64 countries on what they want from their key executives in terms of leadership traits. The three leadership traits that most mattered were the ability to focus intensely on customer needs, the ability to collaborate with colleagues, and the ability to inspire.
I could go on and on reciting list after list after list of “critical leadership traits”. But every time I read a long list of competencies, something seems to be missing!
There is one trait that to me is critical, if not the most important of all leadership traits, one that gives meaning to all the rest.
And that one trait is courage.
You don’t find courage in the official Harvard Competency Dictionary, and unfortunately, courage is hard to find in business these days. And what I mean by leadership courage is the willingness and the “guts” to:
- stand up for the purpose and principles of good business
- to expose the “elephant in the room” and open up difficult conversations
- to do what’s right and not what’s expedient or easy
- to call out bad behaviour rather than walk on by
- to challenge poor decisions or poor leadership instead of turning a blind eye
- to defend employees who are being bullied by supervisors or managers
- to protect “whistle blowers” from retaliation by management
- to encourage innovation, even at the expense of quarterly returns
- to promote the best person for the job, not the “right” person
- to put the customer first and the Wall Street analysts last
Without courage, all the other leadership traits will have very little impact.
See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).
John also writes thriller novels: novels.johnrchildress.com