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The Missing Leadership Competency


Wed Nov 09 2016

The Missing Leadership Competency

I am not a fan of long lists of leadership competencies and their use in everything from leadership training to executive recruiting. When I look at a list of competencies that supposedly make a good leader, I feel totally overwhelmed. Could any one person have all these? Are they all relevant? It's more like a wish list than a useful way to develop or find good leaders.

Competencies, in the most general terms, are “things” that an individual must demonstrate to be effective in a job, role, function, task, or duty. These “things” include job-relevant behavior (what a person says or does that results in good or poor performance), motivation (how a person feels about a job, organization, or geographic location), and technical knowledge/skills (what a person knows/demonstrates regarding facts, technologies, a profession, procedures, a job, an organization, etc.). Competencies are identified through the study of jobs and roles.


Harvard University Competency Dictionary

And yet it seems as though every leadership book, leadership consultancy, and leadership development program has a unique competency list.

Obviously, no one fulfills all these competencies, and not every leadership role in an organization calls for these traits in the same proportions. And what about leadership competencies under stressful situations, such as during a turnaround, megamerger, or global expansion?

The current business context determines the leadership skills required. Whatever the role or business context, they certainly all can't have the same level of importance. In fact, it should be obvious that some traits matter more than others. But which ones?

According to Daniel Goleman in the Harvard Business Review article “The Must-Have Leadership Skill,” emotional intelligence trumps all the other skills—as he would, being the guru of EQ. IBM recently surveyed 1,700 CEOs from 64 countries about the leadership traits they want in their key executives. The three leadership traits that mattered most were the ability to focus intensely on customer needs, the ability to collaborate with colleagues, and the ability to inspire.


I could go on and on reciting list after list of "critical leadership traits." But every time I read a long list of competencies, something seems to be missing. Indeed, there is one critical trait that gives meaning to all the rest: courage.

You don't find the word courage listed in the Harvard University Competency Dictionary, and unfortunately, courage is hard to find in business these days. What I mean by courage, particularly leadership courage, is the willingness and the moxie to:

  • Stand up for the purpose and principles of good business.

  • Expose the "elephant in the room" and open up difficult conversations.

  • Do what's right and not what's expedient or easy.

  • Call out bad behavior rather than ignore it.

  • Challenge poor decisions or poor leadership instead of turning a blind eye.

  • Defend employees who are being bullied by supervisors or managers.

  • Fire those who use bullying as a management tactic.

  • Encourage and listen to bad news.

  • Protect whistle-blowers from retaliation by management.

  • Encourage sustainability and innovation, even at the expense of quarterly returns.

  • Promote the best person for the job, not the "right" person.

  • Put the customer first and Wall Street analysts last.

  • Without courage, all the other leadership traits will have very little impact.

How to Help Develop More Courage in Your Leaders 
 Leadership development programs and workshops are ideal places to begin the process of developing courage as a leadership competency. But rather than using PowerPoint slides full of bullet points and motivational quotations, the use of real business scenarios is an effective tool for experiential learning around the concept of leadership courage. 

The first step is to find within your organization real examples of dilemmas involving the use of courage that current and emerging leaders might face. Identifying and developing these scenarios is critical. Speaking with senior leaders in the organization will typically bring some of these scenarios to light. More often than not they revolve around ethical issues, the choice between two right options, or issues that go against the majority of the team or the commonly accepted way of doing things. 

Each scenario must be developed in written form, as a case study, and in a manner in which participants can act out the various parts. The resulting discussions following the scenario experiences must tease out the cultural and peer pressures that keep leaders from taking a courageous stand, as these are often the real workplace pressures. 


Done well, leadership development programs with such scenarios at their core are highly effective in helping develop greater courage for the betterment of the business, customers, and employees.

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