Last May we added two new elements, Livermorium and Flerovium, to the periodic able after being first synthesized over a decade ago. Adding new elements to the periodic table is rare, not that we have discovered all there is to discover (certainly we will add more in time,) but because the table represents the constants, or all those known in the universe. So it is already quite comprehensive. And while there are alternative representations and grouping methods of the periodic table, for the most part it is laid out in the same way. I am not a physicist, but I would point out similarly, that we do the same thing with leadership competencies.
The ongoing study of leadership occasionally yields a new discovery and there are experts in the field that contribute greatly to that effort. However, too many organizations, in trying to take on leadership improvement more resemble an exercise in renaming the elements of the periodic table, than making new discoveries. For instance, I worked with an organization a few years ago in an effort to design a competency model for the business, and prior to engaging with them, they had spent hours, no—days, going back and forth over whether or not the competency listed in their model was going to be Character, Integrity, or Honesty.
Honesty (I’m not kidding.) They were talking about the very same things related to trustworthiness but were very hung up on the labels.
My counsel: Stop getting caught up in the minutia of renaming or relabeling competencies and focus instead on capturing the essence of the most desired behaviors for leaders.
Having worked with dozens of organizations to develop custom competency models, and reviewing the data on tens of thousands of assessments, the following are the constants that I see in what amounts to the core of the leadership periodic table—kind of like the eight elements that make up 98% of the earths mass.
- Character. Like I said above, call it what you want, integrity, honesty, being an exemplar of behavior, but it is oxygen for leaders because its absence undermines any effort to lead.
- Inspiring/Motivating. In the book I coauthored, The Inspiring Leader, in a study of 20,000 this was the one thing that subordinates wanted most from them. To be inspired.
- Results Orientation. Leadership is a means to an end, in that, without an objective of some kind, it is not critical. Leaders need to be mindful of those objectives and stay focused on them.
- Communication Skills. When I’ve conducted interviews or reviewed the written comments on thousands of 360 degree feedback evaluations the most common issue I see highlighted for improvement is communication. Who does it too well or too often?
- Strategic Focus. Creating vision and strategy is the crux of leadership. and as John Kotter has written about on this site, is one of the key differences between leadership and management.
- Professional and Functional Expertise. Leaders have to understand how to do the basics like solve problems, analyze issues, and demonstrate knowledge of the organization. This includes functional expertise in a discipline like finance, manufacturing, sales, and marketing.
- Interpersonal Skills. No matter how strategic or how much of an expert a leader is, if you can’t relate to others it won’t matter. Leadership is largely a relational skill.
- Leading Change. Not much leadership is required to maintain the status quo, but great leaders prepare their organizations to adapt to the future.
You could certainly debate groupings and subsets with the above list (and I suspect you will,) but there is little doubt about the criticality of each of these.
There are bound to be new discoveries of competencies that have a substantial impact and certainly there is more to learn. Additionally, there are some environments where competencies that are more specialized would be quite useful. For instance, Safety Leadership is likely unimportant in professional services firms or in a technology distribution company, but it was critical when I worked with an oil refinery.
Yet these represent the core of great leadership, albeit not the entire universe of leadership traits. As an aside, we could spend days coming up with leadership competencies, and none of them would be wrong. In my last firm we did a study of hundreds of leadership competencies and all were positively correlated to success at some level. No leadership competency is bad in and of itself. Further, most additional work on leadership behaviors either combines the components of these characteristics or to look at the minute particles that make them up. So take these leadership competencies and embed them in your models. Use them to develop great leaders. And where it is appropriate, feel free to add an element to your organizations periodic table.