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Leadership Competencies

| April 26, 2016

by Jim Bruce

You can find many lists of leadership competencies.  Some result from a careful examination of the work in a particular job family or from role descriptions.  Some come from discussions about what it takes to be a really good leader in a mid-level position at, say, an education institution.  Other lists are developed based on a particular leadership model.  Still other lists are represented by 360 feedback instruments such as the MOR Associates instrument used in the Leaders Program or the Zenger Folkman model described in their Harvard Business Review article, Making Yourself Indispensible, or the MIT Sloan School’s Four Capabilities model.
And, some lists of competencies, such as the one we note today, are the result of surveys of leaders in a particular community.  In a recent study, Dr. Sunnie Giles, organizational scientist, executive coach, and President of the Quantum Leadership Group, surveyed 195 leaders in 15 countries across 30 global organizations.  Participants were asked to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from a list of 74. 
Giles grouped the top 10 competencies identified through the survey into five competency themes:
•  Demonstrates strong ethics and provides a sense of safety encompassing high ethical and moral standards, while communicating clear expectations.  In Giles’ words, this is primarily about creating a safe and trusting working environment.  (From a neuroscience point of view, this is a leaders highest priority.)  A leader with high ethical standards creates expectations of fairness, and instills confidence that both the leader and those led will meet their commitments.  When communications are clear, no one is blindsided and everyone is on the same page.  Giles says, “This competency is all about behaving in a way that is consistent with your values.”
•  Empowers those led to self-organize while providing a clear direction, relying on those closest to the action to make the decisions.  Empowering teams leads to higher levels of commitment, better results, and higher levels of job satisfaction.  However, for the leader stepping up to delegation may be stressful.  Leaders delegating major responsibilities can reduce their stress by sharing the outcomes they most fear with the team.
•  Supports a sense of connection and belonging by communicating often and openly, and creating a feeling of succeeding and failing together – “I’m in this with you.”  Human beings want to connect and experience a sense of belonging.  A sense of connection promotes emotional wellbeing.  Simple ways of promoting a sense of belonging include smiling, calling people by their names, remembering their interests, and listening carefully in conversations with staff and others.  Giles notes, “From a neuroscience perspective, creating connection is a leader’s second most important job.  Once we feel safe (a sensation that is registered in the reptilian parts of the brain), we also have to feel cared for (which activates the limbic brain) in order to unleash the full potential of our higher functioning prefrontal cortex.”
•  Shows openness to new ideas and fosters organizational learning by having the flexibility to change opinions, being open to new ideas and approaches, and to trial and error.  If the leader has these strengths, learning is encouraged;  if leaders don’t have these strengths, learning may be stifled.  To encourage learning on the part of staff members, leaders must demonstrate that they are, themselves, open to learning and changing course.  To do this, they might approach problem-solving discussions without a specific outcome in mind.  And, they might choose not so speak until everyone else has been heard.
•  Nurtures growth by openly supporting the development of his or her staff.  Giles suggests that when we give staff an opportunity to develop, they feel a sense of gratitude and loyalty and express that by going the extra mile.  On the other hand, managing through fear generates stress which impairs higher brain functions. And, this results in the quality of work being different than when that work is supported by appreciation.
These five competency themes may sound different from those you’ve encountered in other lists of competencies.  However, I think that what’s different is their perspective and level.  Giles’ underlying focus is what neuroscience is telling us about our brain and how it responds when we experience threats to our safety – disengaging the limbic brain and the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting creativity and the drive for excellence – and when we feel safe and cared for – unleashing the full potential of our prefrontal cortex to orchestrate our thoughts and actions in accord with our internal goals.
I believe that thinking of our leadership competencies from this viewpoint may be helpful to each of us in meeting the two fundamental needs of staff to feel safe at a very deep level and to feel cared for.  If our actions help us to better meet these two needs for our staff members, then we will have done well and will have enabled our staff members and others around us to function better as well.
Make your week a really great one.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Sunnie Giles, The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World, Harvard Business Review.
John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Scott Edinger, Making Yourself Indispensible, Harvard Business Review.
Deborah Ancona, Four Capabilities of Leadership, MIT Sloan School of Management, Leadership Center video.