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The Top 5 Must-Have Leadership Competencies

Posted by OnPoint Consulting January 3, 2018

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Leadership competencies are those key characteristics and skills possessed by leaders that drive organizational performance. For many organizations, identifying the leadership competencies that are most critical to success in various positions is an enormous challenge.

However, there are a few critical competencies that have, over the years, been demonstrated to impact the performance of almost any leader—regardless of whether they’re a first line manager, a manager of managers, or a functional manager.

To determine what these must-have leadership competencies are, OnPoint conducted a study of hundreds of managers that analyzed those who were rated as “exceptional” and identified the specific behaviors and skills they had which the “average” or “below average” managers lacked.

Across all manager types, five leadership competencies were found to be common in the managers identified as “exceptional” by their direct reports, colleagues, and superiors. These competencies all met two or more of the following criteria:

  1. The competency was among highest mean ratings for exceptional performers;
  2. The competency was most frequently selected as a key strength for exceptional performers; and/or
  3. The competency was among those with the greatest gap in mean difference between average and exceptional performers.

1: An Ability to Grow & Adapt

Data from the study suggests that exceptional managers at all levels don’t necessarily start out that way. In fact, the ability to continue to learn and gain competence is a characteristic that often sets exceptional leaders apart from their counterparts that hit a “performance plateau” earlier in their careers.

In the survey, the percentage of managers who were rated as exceptional peaked among managers who had 5-10 years or more of tenure in their role—these two groups accounted for a combined 50% of all managers rated as exceptional. Meanwhile, only 33% of the total managers rated as average were among this tenure group.

Of all the managers rated as being exceptional, only 5% had a year or less of tenure in their role. Basically, the longer a manager was in their role, the more likely they were to be rated as exceptional. However, the number of managers who had 5 or more years of tenure that were rated as “average” or worse revealed that experience alone didn’t guarantee an improvement in performance.

The most effective leaders were those who could learn from their experiences to grow and adapt to their roles.

2: Action Orientation

Action orientation is the ability to maintain a sense of urgency to complete a task and acting decisively to implement solutions and resolve crises.

Many of the leaders across all levels of management in the organizations surveyed displayed this competency—helping them and their teams complete tasks and meet goals in a timely manner. In all three levels of management, this leadership competency was rated as either the first or second highest-rated of the 46 different competencies investigated in the study.

3: Building Teams

Team building consists of many separate (but closely related) skills in one core competency, including the leader’s ability to:

  • Increase mutual trust;
  • Encourage cooperation, coordination, and identification with the work unit;
  • Encourage information sharing among individuals; and
  • Include others in processes and decisions.

Effective leaders are able to perform all of the above tasks—helping create teams that work well together to meet both short-term and strategic goals.

4: Building Trust & Personal Accountability

Building trust and demonstrating personal accountability involves the leader keeping promises and honoring commitments, accepting responsibility for their own actions, being honest and truthful when communicating information, and assuming responsibility for dealing with problems, crises, or issues when they arise.

5: Critical & Analytical Thinking

Critical and analytical thinking involves the leader’s ability to maintain an objective view of situations by:

  • Questioning basic assumptions;
  • Applying sound reasoning;
  • Understanding the complexity of an issue and breaking it down into manageable pieces; and
  • Understanding the implications of data/information.

Leaders who are able to use critical thinking can objectively assess situations and make impartial, well-reasoned decisions. The trait ranks highly for all manager types—placing in the top 10 competencies for each.

For leaders in any role, these five competencies are objectively-verifiable “must-haves” for maximizing success. However, some roles may require additional skills for success. Because of this, it’s important to not only develop these five competencies, but to identify other leadership competencies for specific roles in your own organization as well.

A competency model creates a precise definition of the skills and attributes that are needed to meet critical business challenges. These models allow companies to accomplish several things:

  1. Align leader behaviors with the overall business culture and strategy;
  2. Provide useful feedback based on defined sets of expectations; and
  3. Invest in the training and development activities that will have the greatest impact on leadership success.

Taking the time to define what success looks like for key leadership roles in your organization is vital for accurately assessing a leader’s strengths and opportunities for improvement in that role.


Topics: Identify And Develop Leaders, Leadership Development, leadership skills

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