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Throw away that Leadership Competency Model


IMAGENAMEWhy are so many people who say they are in the field of leadership development and training unable to grasp the fact that leaders are not all from the same mould? And why do they continue to try to develop 'leaders' by trying to make people just like everyone else? Keith Patching shares his thoughts.

Think of a few leaders. Now consider the question, "Are they just like the people around them?"

Most people's answer will be "No". If these leaders were just like the people around them, then the chances are that they wouldn't have been leaders. They'd have been, well, just like everyone else.

Gandhi led successfully because, unlike other Indian radicals, he didn't fight the Raj; Roosevelt led successfully because he didn’t buy into the 'rugged individualism' that so many of his peers thought was the only defence against totalitarianism; Bill Gates led successfully because he didn't believe that there was only one 'environment'; while Martin Luther King led successfully because he made people believe in a dream.

Leaders are different, not only from the people around them, but also from each other.

So why are so many people who say they are in the field of 'leadership development' (or even 'leadership training') unable to grasp this simple fact? Why do they continue to try to develop 'leaders' by trying to make people just like everyone else? I think I know the answer, but I don’t think many people in the field will like it.

Photo of KEITH PATCHING"True leadership development has to be centred on people, not blueprints, or competency models, or any other hoops you want people to jump through."

In the 25+ years that I have worked in development, I have had the privilege of visiting and working with thousands of academics and practitioners who have 'executive education' as their area of expertise. Many of these people are brilliant thinkers, excellent developers, exciting motivators, and I have learnt a great deal from working with them.

But even great minds, such as Darwin, can get it wrong - not because of a failure of observation, but because of a failure of classification. A great deal of what I see being delivered under the name of 'leadership development' is really good, robust, well-researched, well-delivered education.

So what? So long as people are getting good quality development, does it matter if the label is incorrect?

It is vitally important, because all the while people think that they are doing what is necessary to help good leaders emerge and develop, all we are getting is better qualified managers.

Inside every one of us is a leader desperately trying to emerge. But, ironically, a great deal of what well-meaning professionals are doing in the name of leadership development is stifling that very leadership. The nascent talent in promising individuals is being smothered by 'competency models', 360-degree instruments, and well-researched lists of the 'habits' of other leaders.

Two kinds of research into leadership

Few people try to deliver leadership development by plucking ideas out of nowhere. Anyone who takes development seriously will have looked at research into leadership. I have done so, and have found two quite distinct kinds of research into leadership: limited and broader based.

Limited research into what real leaders do or have done focuses on a narrow definition of 'leader', concentrating upon leaders whose behaviours are sufficiently alike to enable patterns to be defined. This produces a model of the 'ideal' leader-as-hero, or leader-as-consultant, or leader-as-explorer, or even leader-as-best-mate.

Such models are often worked up into leadership competency models, tools or instruments that seek to identify how closely real people actually match up to this ideal.

From there, developers try to teach real people how to emulate this ideal, and lose, along the way, the potential leadership of all those who do not comfortably fit into a 'leader-as' category. But they could be brilliant leaders in their own right.

Broader research recognises that leaders are different, but is used to develop 'models' of leadership that take 'the best' from the lessons of this wide range of leaders. We end up with a hotchpotch, a watered down version of leadership that no real leader would recognise.

From there, developers try to teach people how to become all things to all people, being at the same time strong-willed and absorbent to the ideas of others; determined and flexible; tough and caring; decisive and consultative; responsible and radical. Mother Teresa and Vlad the Impaler rolled into one.

Leadership development that is based on either of these kinds of research does quite the reverse of what it sets out to do: it prevents leaders from developing.

Is leadership development possible?

In this article I have stressed the differences that characterise leaders, and how this difference is ignored by many who purport to deliver leadership development. But can you 'teach' this kind of difference? In other words, am I not simply arguing that 'leadership development' is an oxymoron?

Absolutely not. But true leadership development has to be centred on people, not blueprints, or competency models, or any other hoops you want people to jump through. If you want to help develop leaders in your organisation, throw away your competency models and stop trying to teach.

Who taught Bill Gates to be so devastatingly competitive, or Sir John Harvey-Jones to be so responsible, or Ricardo Semler to be so collegiate, or Richard Branson to be so adventurous?

If the leaders I've referred to earlier in this article have anything in common, it is that each acted with integrity. By that I mean that each of them truly believed in what they said, even though those beliefs were, in many cases, fundamentally different from the beliefs of others, including other successful leaders.

So here's the hard part. Leadership development is risky, because it isn’t about creating an ideal and then trying to get people to act according to that ideal. It’s about working with people, their beliefs and characters, and potentially letting loose a tower of Babel of potentially conflicting beliefs and values.

Practical leadership development

Being a leader is not taking on a role - it is personal. Leadership development, to be effective, has to be personal. Development that starts with the needs of an organisation, or with the 'values/mission statement' of an organisation, or with their 'competency model' is not leadership development. It may have a very important role to play, but it is something else.

To unleash the leadership potential in an organisation, you have to come from the opposite direction, and genuinely put the individual first.

"The developer's role is to help identify, explore, and unlock the talents of very different characters, and to help meld those characters into an integrated whole."

Why should any organisation make an investment in people whose beliefs may be contrary to those espoused by the organisation? The answer is that any organisation, big or small, has the potential to benefit from releasing the energies, the belief, and the capabilities of all kinds of leaders - warriors, sages, adventurers and guardians alike.

The developer's role is to help identify, explore, and unlock the talents of very different characters, and to help meld those characters into an integrated whole. One in which individuals do not try to become people they are not, but in which those fundamental differences of character can be brought together into a more effective combination.

Effective leadership development demands a set of skills and an approach which is diametrically opposed to those suited to training, or even to management development. Leadership development is not management education for the more senior, it is an entirely different territory in which to be effective, a practitioner has to throw away the tools and techniques acquired from years of training.

Think again of those leaders you brought to mind when you read the first paragraph. How many of them would match up to the competency models you are familiar with?

Keith Patching is a founding partner of LCS Academy, where he specialises in leadership development, and is a former director at the Cranfield School of Management

For more of Keith Patching's thoughts on this topic click here


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