The Fatal Flaw in Leadership Competency Models

The vast majority of Global 1000 companies, Federal and State government agencies, NGOs, and philanthropic organizations use leadership competency models to describe the skills and behaviors leaders need to be successful.

Organizations typically use 6-20 competencies to define leader expectations with variations for those in different hierarchical levels, functions, business units, and geographical regions.

Competency models play a pervasive role in talent management and are the foundation for many recruiting, selection, on-boarding, development, succession planning and performance management systems. Because these models largely determine who gets hired and promoted and what gets rewarded and trained, organizations tend to take the identification of leadership competencies very seriously.

Human Resources either buys off-the-shelf leadership competencies from consulting firms in order to adhere to “best practices” or builds their own models.

The latter involves interviewing dozens of incumbents and superiors, running multiple focus groups, and getting final buy-in from senior leadership. Both approaches have a fatal flaw that perpetuates the high base rate of managerial incompetence found in many organizations.  

The problem is that many consulting firms and Human Resource departments fail to realize that leadership is a group phenomenon. Leadership does not happen without followers, and the primary role of a leader is to build teams that beat the competition.  Leadership competency models therefore need to define the skills and behaviors needed to build teams and get things done through others.

As seen in the three off-the-shelf leadership models listed above, none say anything about building teams. Two of the three say something about results, but the behaviors in these competencies say more about the leader accomplishing personal goals than getting work done through others or beating the competition.

Many off-the-shelf leadership competency models do a marvelous job identifying the skills needed to get promoted; whether they identify the skills needed to be effective (i.e., build teams that win) is questionable. Model #2 is a particularly good example of this.

Internally constructed leadership competency models also tend to say little about building teams or getting results. This is due to the fact that the majority of people in positions of authority participating in interviews and focus groups and granting final approval of leadership competency models are either incompetent or more interested in getting promoted than being effective. As a result most homegrown leadership competency models say more about the skills needed to get promoted than build teams that win, which perpetuates the managerial incompetence problem. 

To fix this problem, organizations need to take a hard look at their leadership competency models and see whether they describe the skills and behaviors needed to build teams and achieve results that beat the competition.