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PhD, Union Institute / Doctor of Social Science, University of Leicester


We’ve all seen them. Some companies have them for internal use. Some companies in the leadership development business tout theirs. (And, of course, the certifications and training they sell along with them.) What are they? Leadership competency models, of course. The thinking is that if your leaders can just do (or be) these things on our list, they’ll be effective in their leadership roles. But is it true? In part, yes. But it’s not the complete story. There’s more to it, but no one is talking about it – except here!

Competency Models

So, what is a competency model? It’s a list of characteristics or behaviors that good leaders should display and employ as they lead others towards whatever goals and objectives have been laid out. The federal government has a set they call the Executive Core Qualifications. These include things like “strategic thinking” and “political savvy.” Private leadership development companies have them, like the Leadership Circle Profile, which encourages creative competencies they encourage (like courageous authenticity and systems thinking) and those they discourage (like arrogance or being too protective). Heck, even the Boy Scouts of America have one! (Be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc.) Are these valuable? Sure! But they’re not the whole story. Let’s take a look at the other half of the equation.

Growth vs Development

This might be a distinction you haven’t heard before, but it’s really useful in examining how we move leaders to later stages of performance. The term “growth” relates to getting as good as possible at one’s current stage, consolidating it. Leadership, technical, and interpersonal skills appropriate for that stage in one’s career are acquired, used, and (hopefully) mastered. In other words, competencies! But how do you move to the next level? When you consolidate that stage, what’s next?

Moving from one stage to the next is what we call “development.” So, growth is about getting good at your current stage and development is moving up to the next. But how do you do it? By building your capacity. Think of having a leadership bucket. Achieving competencies fill the bucket. But development creates greater capacity – a bigger bucket! So how do we do that?

Capacity Development – Make That Bucket Bigger

The science of developing greater capacity (developing to later stages) is complicated and beyond the scope of this article. It involves learning about several concepts, practicing on “real world” challenges, clashing ideas with peers, and participating in group and individual coaching. For a more detailed description of the process, click here to see my model of Purposeful Leadership Development.


Leaders who advance to later stages of development – who build greater capacity – are more successful. They’re able to take on more complexity, work in more ambiguous situations, stay open to multiple perspectives (even multiple realities) for longer periods of time. This leads to greater successes, new innovations, and faster career development.


Leadership competencies – regardless of which model you follow – are essential to your success in leading others. But they’re not the whole story. To advance your performance – and your career – you also need to build your capacity to take on greater and more complex challenges. Building that capacity is the missing piece of your developmental journey.