The 3Cs in Developing Leaders
Part II: Competency

By Ray Blunt

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Lists. We are a people who simply love lists. There must be something in our American psyche that craves to know what is up, what is down; what is hot and what is not. Maybe it’s our competitive juices that flow so readily toward comparisons. A brief review of the newspapers and magazines at the end of each year will give the list-hungry among us more than enough fodder, be it the top sports stories of the year; the best and worst dressed people; or even what’s “in” and what’s “out” for next year. Not surprisingly, it was only recently that The Book of Lists hit the best-seller list (no pun intended) to be followed by such imitators as The Writing Teacher’s Book of Lists (an oxymoron?), The Disinformation Book of Lists, and, inevitably, The Best Book of Lists, Ever!

Closer to home, a very important list in the Federal Government is the list of Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs), which has 5 components making up the Core, 22 competencies that define the 5 Core components and, to top it all off, 5 fundamental competencies that apply to all of the ECQs. Whew! So, are the ECQs just another list? Not really, but the ECQs are an expression of one of the 3Cs that should characterize every effective leader: competency. The other two Cs are character and chronos (for how a leader uses the scarcest resource—time—see Part I of this series).

Let’s begin this conversation about competency with a very brief history. In mid-1990s, OPM identified the ECQs following a lengthy process that recognized that the government needs more than competent managers; it also needs effective leaders. In benchmarking the best practices in the private sector, OPM researchers found that every top organization attempted to describe what they expected from their leaders and then used these descriptive expectations (i.e. competencies) for selection and development as well as for rewards and promotion.  In addition to that benchmarking, OPM conducted extensive research in the field of leadership in general and consulted with Senior Executives and professional organizations. The first ECQs and their attendant competencies were published in 1996 and began to be incorporated much like the private sector into the various human resources functions. Not that much has changed in the ECQs in the 13 years since then. If you want to refresh your memory, go to this link: (I won’t list them for you.)

But like all lists, even good ones like the ECQs, there are problems here.

First, we can’t remember lists. Our brains are made such that we simply do not remember this way. We remember in contexts, stories, parables—not long, bulleted lists even if they are important.

Second, lists make everything seem equal. From first to last, each item seems like it’s equally important (or unimportant) whether it’s Information Technology Management, Decisiveness, Strategic Thinking, or Vision. Some of us are tempted to conclude that if everything is important, nothing is important; hence, the ECQs can lose their usefulness if we’re not careful.

Third, generic lists do not necessarily prove helpful to every organizational situation. Did the Department of Homeland Security need to be formed with leaders who possess all of these ECQs and the attendant 27 competencies or did they need others? Or just a few? Do DoD leaders need to have these to the same extent that FDA leaders do or do they have differing requirements for leader competency? What about those leaders who will take on the economic crisis?  What do we all need to see in their competencies to help transform this grave situation and change our past national and global economic policies?

Finally, there is the reality check. In all honesty, are candidates for SES positions really rated according to these lists or do they become convenient rubrics against which to write applications? Are those who receive bonuses and promotions the most exemplary at employing these competencies? Do we pick future leaders at lower levels based on their progress toward these competencies? And, do we have any wisdom that goes beyond naming the 27 competencies as to how we grow such qualities in the next generation? On those questions there is a bit too much silence.

Now you might think I am making a case against the ECQs and long lists of competencies in general, but stay tuned. The story is a bit bigger than that. While the ECQ approach does have its limitations, I’d like us to think about competency in a leader somewhat differently. No one would argue that we want incompetent leaders; in fact, the political case that is being made in this new administration is that we need better leaders in government from the President, to the Congress, to the generals, to Senior Executives, and we might as well lump private sector business leaders like insurance company execs and mortgage industry loan bundlers into the mix while we’re at it. Most people believe they have seen enough failed leadership to last a lifetime, and the global crises we read about every day make it even more imperative we have excellent, absolutely competent leaders. As we hear over and over again, we need leaders who can produce change and, guess what? That is the ultimate test of a leader—that they can produce significant change.

So let me provide a few thoughts on leader competency that might make navigating your own development as a leader or the development of others slightly more coherent than a long list. It’s simply my personal short list based on a dozen years of teaching leaders and 35 years being one and yet lacking a good deal of what I have begun to find is critical. You are certainly free to disagree or add your own key competencies in the comment area below.

One quality valued in leaders is the ability to build an organization where truth and transparency prevail. Sound simple? It is not. I have pondered for many years now Max DePree’s statement, “The first task of a leader is to define reality . . .” as set forth in his little gem, Leadership is an Art. Essentially what he means is what I have found in every single organization I have consulted with: lying quietly within are “dangerous truths” (as Annette Simmons describes them)—things everyone knows but are afraid to voice. The Emperor’s New Clothes is only one metaphor that describes this tendency. Lack of truth telling promotes fear and fear leads to distrust and a loss of creativity and innovation. Leaders need to ensure that people tell them the truth about themselves and then, after having modeled the climate by soliciting honest feedback and acting on it, they need to ensure truth telling exists from top to bottom. Adults can be trusted with the truth; yet, paternalistic organizations hide the truth because they cannot trust that everyone is mature enough to handle it. Are we going to lay any people off? Will we be reorganized—again? How will the next promotion be decided? Truth telling changes the entire climate of an organization, making it healthy and leads to a healthy culture for change where people trust the leader and each other without fear.

Also, I have learned from many I have taught and had conversations with over the years that the best leaders take complexity and bring simplicity to it. You might call it focus or prioritization or even alignment, but it is a competency that leaders need to have. This is why metaphors such as Plato’s Cave have endured for so long in communicating complex ideas such as reality. For example, Jim Collins’ widely acclaimed book Good to Great begins with a discussion of leadership and of leaders, concluding from his five years of research that the very best leaders—Level V as he refers to them—possess two competencies: a resolute and unflinching focus on the purpose of the organization coupled with a deep sense of humility. That’s all. How that plays out in the other factors he has identified that make an organization great are expressed in metaphors—the hedgehog concept, the flywheel, and getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats. But the leadership competency that is valued in his research above all others is that of discipline—self-discipline and organizational discipline to understand and to keep focused on the purpose and to resolutely eschew arrogance in favor of humility. Too many ancillary and hidden agendas can sidetrack the best leaders and the best organizations. Arrogant self promotion in a leader will always be a stumbling block for results.

I have also found that leaders need to focus on being competent at what no one else in the organization can do. As far as I can tell, there are at least two things only the leader can do. One is to grow the next generation of leaders in their organization. Putting people in challenging and different work situations and coaching them is something only a leader can pull off. Being a mentor, being a teacher in the workplace during teachable moments, and above all being an example—these are the things leaders need to be good at. If they are not, they will lack the bench strength to tackle tough jobs in their organization. If the leader is devoted her own care and feeding toward advancement, the head will be healthy, but the body will atrophy such that when the leader walks away, the organization will have to start from scratch.

The other thing that only leaders can do is to shape the culture of the organization. The basic assumptions of how things work here, what is important, what is valued, what differences there are between the values espoused and lived out by senior leaders—these are all elements of organization culture. It is a leader’s job to understand what their culture is, how to change it if necessary, and leverage that culture toward excellent performance for the service of others. Culture is the fine sand that can destroy the gears of change, gradually grinding to a halt any effort to make things better. Only leaders can attend to this yet it is one of the most complex of problems and demands persistent attention. Good culture on the other hand becomes a competitive advantage that competitors cannot duplicate. Southwest Airlines is a good case in point. All airlines do the same things, but somehow Southwest has created a climate where from the pilot to the baggage handler, they simply do it better. Wiser men than I attribute it to their culture.

Finally, on my short list, I remember a story told to me of General Bill Creech who revolutionized the Air Force approach to quality. He expressed his view of how to lead people by one simple maxim: let your people know that you care about them, that you love them. With it, you have great latitude for forgiveness; without it, nothing else is important in leading people. Now a lot of competencies in leading people go into that simple distillation of the decades of experience of a superior senior leader like General Creech: care about your people so that they know it. Go out on the flight lines in the middle of the night to talk with the maintenance workers; learn their names; ask about their kids; do something if their family has problems. You get the point: have the self discipline to express sincere care about others.

So what do we have in the end? Another doggone list you might say. But it’s a short list. It’s not quite exhaustive but it’s almost there. But given time and space, I’d prefer some help.

So here’s the question for some conversation: What competencies do you value most in a leader? What competencies do you most see lacking within the government or within your organization? We’re all here to learn to become better leaders so let’s see what wisdom bubbles up for the good of us all.

Ray Blunt currently teaches philosophy and theology to juniors and seniors at Ad Fontes Academy, a classical Christian school in Centreville, VA. He is the author of Crossed Lives, Crossed Purposes: Why Thomas Jefferson Failed and William Wilberforce Persisted in Leading an End to Slavery, an historical leadership exploration, and a contributor to The Jossey-Bass Reader on Non-Profit and Public Leadership. Ray has long served as a leadership consultant, teacher, and speaker for many government and non-profit organizations after spending 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a Senior Executive. He is B.J.'s husband of 50 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.

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