Philosophically and practically, I find myself quite conflicted over the leadership competencies agenda.
On the one hand, we use a capability framework at an INGO where I work for assessment and development purposes and, on the whole, it provides a useful touchstone for these purposes. It was derived from observations globally of what seems to make people successful within the organisation's cultural environment (although I’m not sure what criteria were used to denote ‘success’). It provides a basis for awareness raising, focused conversation, critical reflection, practical action (e.g. developing new insights or ways of doing things). So, pragmatically-speaking, it does prove a useful tool.
On the other hand, there’s something about analysing leadership competencies that can feel reductionist. I think that’s where my underlying discomfort lies. I’m reminded of a philosophy lecturer during my theological studies who introduced the idea of a beautiful rose. "A poet tries to capture and express the rose’s beauty in colourful, creative language. It’s about its intangible qualities – beauty, essence, spirit, impact." Perhaps, by analogy, we might experience this phenomenon in leaders as personality, character, charisma, X factor.
What’s interesting for me is that ‘beauty’ isn’t just about the rose – it’s about how I perceive, experience and respond to it. It’s not just what I see, it’s what I attribute to it, what I feel and do as a result. By analogy, I wonder if what I regard as ‘good leadership’ in a particular time and context is really the result of a complex combination of personal qualities emerging and interacting in a specific social/political/cultural environment. It’s influenced by what I notice (and don’t), what I attribute success to (and don’t), what happens when the leader interacts with people’s history, culture, values, expectations etc.
This may explain why different leadership qualities prove successful in different contexts. I’ve had personal experience of this. For example, I once led a highly successful youth group in the North of England. I tried applying the same leadership style and approach with a youth group in the South and it was a terrible failure. I’ve also noticed how in the same situation, different people respond to the same leader’s leadership differently. One person is inspired where another feels disengaged. As with the rose, there’s some kind of dynamic interplay between stimulus and responder.
This makes me wonder which, if any, leadership qualities are universal and which, if any, are contingent on context.
Staying with the rose analogy, the scientist dissects the rose in order to understand and explain it. This form of inquiry can explain the rose at a basic structural level but it won’t explain why people buy roses for their partners. I guess, for me, defining competencies can feel more scientific than poetic. There’s something about the dissecting that risks missing or even diminishing the quality of the whole.
I’m reminded of Nevin’s seminal work on Gestalt consulting: "The whole is more than the sum of the parts, as the arrangement of configuration of the parts is what gives an object its unique quality. In the case of singling out a tree in a park, the object is perceived almost immediately as a tree even if our attention is drawn to some parts more than to others. Studying only isolated, single parts of the tree (trunk, roots, branches, leaves etc) does not allow one to experience that which we call ‘tree’."
I've been prompted to consider two other issues which are related to the above. Firstly, whether it’s more meaningful to speak of leadership qualities and management competencies than leadership competencies. I'm not sure, but 'quality' somehow holds for me that sense of mystery that lies beyond transferable capability.
Secondly, whether we should inquire into what factors are making the difference in a specific real time and context rather than focusing on distilling and codifying generic leadership qualities or capabilities ‘out of context’. In other words, should we pay more (or equal) attention to evaluating leadership on the basis of what is achieved, what its effects are, which values are safeguarded etc. rather than the simple (in theory, if not in practice) qualities or capabilities the leader displays? It’s a difficult one. What results do we attribute to the leader and what do we attribute to other causal or contributing factors?
I’m reminded, by analogy, of the difference between Investors in People and Best Companies. Investors in People evaluates inputs (e.g. specific processes and practices) with the assumption that prescribed inputs (‘good practice’) will lead to desired outputs. By contrast, Best Companies evaluates whether desired outputs (staff engagement) have been achieved in a specific organisation and inquires into what has contributed to those results (e.g. confidence in leadership during tough economic times).
This poses interesting questions and challenges for leadership (as distinct from management skills) development: whether it’s possible and, if so, what we are trying to develop and how best to go about developing it.
The approach we’ve used in the INGO has focused mainly on developing cultural aspiration, holding ‘leadership conversations’ (getting leaders together to chat about what’s real and important for them and seeing what emerges), inviting stakeholder feedback, participating in executive coaching and action learning. I would love to hear how others are approaching leadership development and to draw on their ideas and learning too.
One final thing occurs to me. I've noticed how many leadership characteristics could be regarded and framed as essentially self-balancing. For example, visionary yet realistic; flexible yet robust; inspiring yet listening; humble yet assertive; courageous yet empathetic; strategic yet grounded. I can draw these ‘polarities’ as spokes on a wheel with 'person' at the hub and 'context' at the rim. There's something about what mode or quality influences change in a specific environment. I'm going to give more thought to that.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.