The Missing Leadership Competency


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:

  • Adaptability
  • Aligning Performance for Success
  • Applied Learning
  • Building a Successful Team
  • Building Customer Loyalty
  • Building Partnerships
  • Building Positive Working Relationships (Teamwork/Collaboration)
  • Building Trust
  • Coaching
  • Communication
  • Continuous Learning
  • Contributing to Team Success
  • Customer Focus
  • Decision Making
  • Delegation
  • Developing Others
  • Energy
  • Facilitating Change
  • Follow-Up
  • Formal Presentation
  • Gaining Commitment
  • Impact
  • Information Monitoring
  • Initiating Action (Initiative)
  • Innovation
  • Leading/Living The Vision And Values
  • Managing Conflict
  • Managing Work (Includes Time Management)
  • Meeting Leadership
  • Meeting Participation
  • Negotiation
  • 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
  • Tenacity.
  • Valuing Diversity
  • Work Standards

Whew !  I’m exhausted just reading the list.

Leadership-circilesObviously, 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.



John R. Childress,

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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10 Responses to The Missing Leadership Competency

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear John: I totally agree with you. Courage is the number one Leadership competency. “Period.” This is not even up for discussion. Leadership is first and foremost about courage and then the remaining competencies that are required are not even on their list. What about purpose, vision, desire and faith? What about passion? When I look around at what is available in the area of Leadership Training and or Coaching, There is really nothing available and there are thousands of books on the subject. How about if you and I coauthor a book on “Leadership?” It would be the best book ever written on “Leadership.” Seems like everyone is hungry for it and we could satisfy that hunger. Let me know. Respectfully, your friend, Mike Petrusek.


  2. Great message, John.


  3. If we take ‘courage’ back to its root, it means ‘heart’. If we unpack ‘heart’ a bit we might even get to ‘core’, or perhaps better said, a true center from which the person shows him or herself. Courage, in the context of leadership, might then be said to be ability to come from one’s most ‘true’ self, acknowledging both what is there and what is missing or underdeveloped. That’s a tall order, and perhaps its why so many lists fail to include courage, which is not a competency to be gained, but a naturally arising state of mind that has an unique center in each of us. Discovering and deploying that is the mark of a leader. Whether in the boardroom or at the dinner table, leaders set an example for others to follow.


  4. bhedden says:

    Bravo John! Courage is a pivotal element of leadership as you have indicated. It has been my experience however that most courage only goes to the extent of that viewed as acceptable from the top of the organization. This acceptance is often reflected in the climate and culture of the organization. There are many leaders out there with a great amount of courage and are willing to take a stand but, sometimes that stand comes at a cost. You pointed to competencies at the onset which I believe play a very important role in the leadership process. It is not a matter of having them all but rather being able to apply the right ones at the right time and in the right situation that makes leadership successful.


  5. Thank you for this article. How very true it is. I believe it is one of the biggest issues facing American businesses today. The irony is that people are craving this type of leadership and willing to go to the mat for those who display it. Sometimes in business we might things too hard…maybe its time we go back to the basics.


  6. Pingback: 7 Management Ideas From Leaders | Posts

  7. Pingback: 7 Leadership Tips From Leaders - Ian's Messy Desk

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