Leadership Competency Models Demystified

Leadership competency models are attempts to identify and document the most important behaviors and capabilities that are linked to leadership success in a given environment. Using a model-based approach to the competencies, an organization can harvest insights from experts and past leaders to help identify and train future leaders.

Competency models are created using a collection of defined competencies. Each competency establishes a list of behaviors and capabilities desirable in a leader. A good competency definition should include the:

  1. Behaviors and capabilities required
  2. Defined benchmarks used to measure the competency
  3. Conditions in which an individual will have to perform
  4. Learning and development opportunities

Competency definitions are not universal, and off-the-shelf descriptions are often adapted to meet an organization’s needs. As examples, leadership competency models might contain competency definitions for effective conflict management, creative problem solving, customer focus, judgment, leading by example, results focus, self-development, or team development. The actual number of competencies referenced with a competency model varies from organization to organization but rarely define less than 4 or greater than 15. 

Supporters and Critics

Leadership Competency models have both their supporters and critics. Most experts and business analysts regard leadership competency models as useful and practical tools that bring many positives to an organization. One of the most significant benefits of a competency model is the ability to learn from the past to help build leaders for the future. Some other advantages include:

  1. Creating a clear roadmap for leadership development
  2. Providing insights into the capabilities and behaviors expected from leaders
  3. Creating learning and development tools to help develop leaders

Build, Buy or Borrow

Experts can define new competencies by using historical data, interviews, workshops, and lots of hard thinking to create a bespoke competency model. Readymade competency models are available that can be licensed and customized to fit the needs of an organization. Open-sourced competency models are also available. The elements of a customized model must reflect the organization’s requirements, and developing these is hard for non-experts.  Many capable experts have an in-depth knowledge of these models and the underlying formulae; hiring them to perform this task can pay off significantly in the long run.

Balanced View

The critics of competency models often object to their apparent simplicity. And their concerns are not unjustified. Leadership has a plethora of shades and layers which can seldom be summed up within a single set of capabilities and behavioral traits. Even when customized to an organization, the importance of context can be underplayed in a competency model.
We know simply by experience that most business leaders vary wildly from each other in terms of skills, capabilities, and leadership qualities. But all of them seem to achieve considerable success in motivating their teams, creating a sustainable business and carving a niche for themselves.

A salient example would be the difference between the leadership styles of Walt Disney and Sir Richard Branson. Walt Disney maintained an authoritative grip over all published material starting with design and continuing through to post-production. Whereas Sir Branson has mastered the art of delegation to the extent that now Virgin employees can go on vacation without needing to apply for leave. Two widely different leadership styles, both successful.


Organization use competency models to inform decisions related to hiring, selection, promotion, creating focused learning and development initiatives, leadership coach selection, and building the talent pool. Leadership competency models are useful tools, but they are not the be-all and end-all in leadership development. Using the model as a reference or guide rather than as a rulebook yields better results. Just as you cannot judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you cannot judge a leader solely by their ability to manage. Taking time to define the leadership competencies, and group these into models, will produce an authoritative reference point for leaders, and their team, to learn and develop their talents.

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