Stephen Billing’s Blog

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Lominger Competencies Book Discount Offer

Stephen Billing, December 11, 2009

In which I ponder on the ethics of telling you about a book promotion and decide to do it.

I have written quite a bit about competencies on this blog and these past posts have attracted comments from readers. (Click on either the Category or Tag Competencies at the right hand navigation bar to find the posts.)

These posts have also attracted the attention of Korn Ferry, who, I think, own Lominger, which is the set of 67 competencies and associated tools that has swept through the public service in New Zealand. I received an email from a marketing specialist at Korn Ferry asking me if I would be interested in blogging about their current special package, in return for receiving a copy of the package itself.

I have to confess to going immediately into a bit of a spin because it meant that this little blog had been noticed enough to be approached for a deal. So I immediately saw the recognition in this approach – someone out there has noticed and thinks what I’m writing has some value. (more…)


The Language of Leadership – Useful Only to Describe Deficits?

Stephen Billing, November 5, 2009

In which I consider that even though it is much debated what leadership actually consists of or whether it actually exists at all, the language of leadership has certainly given rise to to many ways to describe deficits of personal characteristics in those who manage and lead organisations. 

I am currently reading The Saturated Self by Kenneth Gergen. In it, he discusses the impacts of burgeoning technology on our identity – i.e. how we experience who we are. He says that through technology we are now bombarded by many disparate voices of humanity – both harmonious and alien.

He demonstrates how the scientisation of human behaviour has led to an explosion of terms to describe mental health deficits in the 20th century. Terms such as low self esteem, repressed, authoritarian, obsessive-compulsive, bulimic, sadomasochistic and post-traumatic stress disorder have only come into being relatively recently, and they all refer to problems, shortcomings or incapacities – mental deficits. (more…)


There Are Always At Least Two Perspectives In Every Relationship

Stephen Billing, October 4, 2009

Holding contradictory points of view without getting anxious – could this be a core competency for leaders of change?

When you think about it, it is fairly obvious that there can be no "I" without we, you (singular), he, she, you (plural) and they. "I" can only be thought of as "I and relationships with others." "I" cannot be thought of as a stand alone individual in isolation from others. You could think of "I" as meaning "interdependent I."

You can distinguish between interdependent I and others, but you cannot separate them – interdependent I only exists in relationship to other people. (more…)


Are You Using the Wrong Leadership Competencies?

Stephen Billing, September 28, 2009

The competencies required for leadership (if there is such a thing as competencies and leadership) are not to be found in the standard competency frameworks. If you are using a competency framework, it is likely to be wrong, therefore don’t give it much priority. 

The idea of competencies is that you will be able to identify necessary skills and define the steps required to acquire those skills. So, an important step in developing leaders is then to be smart enough to analyse the work of a manager or leader, or make use of the work of those who are smart enough to research and precook a set of skills for you. These skills are separated from the context in which the skills are used. Hence, strategic agility is said to be something that people can acquire by using strategic buzzwords, doing five year projections even though five year plans don’t happen as projected, or regularly reading strategy gurus and Harvard Business Review. These remedies are among those recommended in Lominger’s book FYI For Your Improvement, Fourth Edition, pp 344 – 348. (more…)


Changing the Tune of Leadership Competencies

Stephen Billing, December 17, 2008


Leadership competencies tend to reinforce individualistic behaviours that downplay the meaning that their leadership work has for practising managers – the "emotional and moral labour of creating chioices and meanings for themselves and others," as Bolden and Gosling put it.

I think our leadership development activities should have far more reflection and discussion on real life practice and experience.

Bolden and Gosling use an apt musical metaphor – the behaviours articulated in leadership competency frameworks can be considered like musical notes on the page, or the scales practiced by the musician. However the experience of a great musical performance relies on interpretation, improvisation and interaction, with the other musicians and with the audience. Likewise, the richness of leadership involves emotion, intuition, experience, and symoblic and narrative processes of collective sense making in the organisation.

Competencies are not enough, and in fact divert attention away from the important aspects of how meanings emerge and transform over time.


Leadership Competencies Miss the Subtleties

Stephen Billing, December 15, 2008


We often hear that leaders lead through action, but in practice they lead through their words. You could say that the actions are acts of speech.

In an interesting research method, Bolden and Gosling compared the language of 29 different competency frameworks with the language of approximately 250 practising managers who gave reflective accounts of their own leadership practice. There was a distinct difference.

Bolden and Gosling found that in the competency frameworks, leadership was presented as a set of traits and behaviours possessed by the leader. As noted in earlier posts, this is an individualistic approach in that leadership is seen as a characteristic of the individual, not as being jointly created with others.

The narrative accounts of leadership by practising managers emphasised the moral and relational dimensions of leadership, dealing with complexity and uncertainty with an emotional engagement with others.

According to Bolden and Gosling, the competency frameworks tended to neglect the more subtle, moral, emotional and relational aspects of leadership. 

That is why I think our leadership development efforts should spend more time on these subtleties and less time on competencies. In fact I would go so far as to say that the usefulness of our leadership development courses is actually in the extent that they encourage reflection on these subtleties. And in many programmes this kind of reflection is only incidental, rather than being given a central place in the design.

What do you think about this?



Acquiring Competencies Does Not Necessarily Make You Competent

Stephen Billing, December 13, 2008

Henry Mintzberg, no less, asserted that "acquiring competencies does not necessarily make a manager competent," in his 2004 book Managers Not MBAs.

I think this is equivalent to my realisation that the fact that I can plonk my way on the piano in very hesitant steps through a Beethoven minuet for easy piano does not make me a musician. Or at least not someone who can earn my living as a musician.

Simply acquiring a competency does not necessarily mean you will use it and nor does the absence of a competency make you "incompetent," according to Bolden and Gosling. In fact, excessive levels of a seeming useful competency such as ‘team orientation’ can turn to indecisiveness – having too much of a competency can lead to failure. Lominger competencies address this issue by including behavioural indicators that demonstrate over-use of a competency, and this is a popular selling point for Lominger’s competency model.

Nevertheless, in spite of efforts like this, at the heart of this issue is that competencies consider the worker and the work as distinct entities. The strong emphasis on individual behaviour mean that outcomes are invariably attributed to the individual irrespective of any collective effort or contextual factors that were involved.

The upshot? You can safely file competencies under I for ‘individualism.’


More Assumptions Behind the Competency Approach

Stephen Billing, December 11, 2008

Competencies reinforce and disguise assumptions about the nature of organisational life and leadership

Richard Bolden and Jonathan Gosling in their article "Leadership Competencies: Time to Change the Tune?" (article is subscription only) in the journal titled Leadership, cite Marcus Buckingham from Gallup as identifying three further assumptions behind the competency approach. Sorry no link to Gallup – they don’t make it easy!

Assumption 1

That those who excel in the same role display the same behaviours.

Response 1

That is why competency models look so similar to each other and yet the leaders and the organisations they purport to describe look so different from each other. And of course many individual leaders achieve similar results via different approaches.

Assumption 2

That these behaviours can be learned.

Response 2

Competencies come down firmly on the "made" not "born" side of the leadership traits debate. This to my mind is not necessarily a problem, but is this assumption acknowledged in your own thinking about leadership competencies?

Assumption 3

That improving on your weaknesses leads to success.

Response 3

Many individual leaders have managed to be successful despite significant personal flaws e.g. Napoleon and probably any successful CEO you can think of from your own experience.  

Yet More Assumptions!

As if that were not enough, Salaman points out some fundamental but often unacknowledged characteristics of the competency approach:

  • The competency approach is a framwork for measuring, monitoring and regulating the behaviour of managers. 
  • Competencies require a translation from strategy to organisation to the individual manager, which tends to disguise organisational objectives and priorities which then remain hidden and unquestioned.
  • Because the list of competencies serves as a specification for further improvement, the first management competency is commitment to the list of management competencies itself.

All in all, Bolden and Gosling suggest that leadership competencies are like written music, the notes and scales that denote the music, but that it is only in the performance of the music that it comes to life and has meaning for those who participate. Carrying this metaphor further, they suggest that the ability to play solo does not mean they can be an effective member of a group or orchestra (i.e. organisation) and the ability to read music or play certain notes does not make one an excellent musician. Further, being a successful musician in one genre such as classical does not mean that the talent will be able to be transferred to another genre such as jazz, rock or hip hop.

In summary, following the leadership competency approach means that you risk being able to do  scales or musical exercises, but not being able to create music that will stir the emotions and move your people towards the ends that you desire.


Assumptions Behind the Leadership Competencies Approach

Stephen Billing, December 9, 2008

In this post, four assumptions behind the competency approach are challenged.

The competency approach is so commonplace in organisational life that it hardly seems worthy of comment. It has become like the air that you breathe, always present so that you take it for granted and hardly notice it.

Here are four assumptions behind the competency approach that are rarely mentioned. For these, I have drawn on Carroll, Levy and Richmond’s article Leadership as Practice: Challenging  the Competency Paradigm.

  • Human behaviour can be described in a manner that is free of context and other people – as an individual agent choosing what behaviours to exhibit, in isolation of the specific context.
  • Human actions can be reduced to fragments and then rebuilt into a complete ‘whole’.
  • What has worked in the past will inevitably continue to be relevant for the future (competencies are based on past behaviour).
  • Competencies, which by their nature can only articulate what is tangible, ‘objective’ and measurable can be used to describe leadership, a phenomenon which is intangible, subjective and not measurable. 

As I consider each of these assumptions I come to the conclusion that they are not accurate assumptions.

Human behaviour can surely only be described in particular situations with other people, not in disembodied descriptions of context-free behaviour.

The reduction of human action to fragments is potentially useful for thinking about some micro aspects of behaviour, but the ‘whole’ can only make sense in the context of the relationships between the people concerned, the past background of those involved, and their intentions. The kind of ‘whole’ that can be built from these fragments does not seem to me to be very useful.

It seems that the future may be quite different from the past.  As I write this it seems that the world is about to head into a recession. Many of the people managing organisations currently or in the past, upon whom the various competency models are based, will have learnt their skills in a very different world from that we anticipate in a recessionary environment.

And as for the final assumption above, I do not think that applying reductionist methods to the world of human beings does much except give us an unrealistic view of human behaviour.

We need to find better ways of understanding human beings, ways that acknowledge the interdependence of humans, ways that acknowledge that we cannot step outside of human relating to break it down into its component parts, ways that acknowledge the unknowability of some aspects of being human.


A Definition of Competency

Stephen Billing, December 7, 2008

There is little empirical research support for the leadership competencies approach.

Leadership is an academic journal on leadership published in the UK. The November 2008 issue just out has an article by Brigid Carroll, Lester Levy and David Richmond of Auckland University, entitled Leadership as Practice: Challenging the Competency Paradigm. The authors take as their starting point Richard Boyatzis’s definition of competency as "an underlying characteristic of an individual that is causally related to effective or superior performance in a job."

Carroll, Levy and Richmond say that the key words of this definition are "individual," "causally," "superior" and "performance." In other words, the individual agent takes primacy, there is a linear relationship between intention and intervention, and superior performance is the result of a strategic plan formed by purpose and principles.

The article goes on to challenge these assumptions, and this is the first of several posts in which I want to explore the competency approach to leadership and whether it stacks up. Because, as you’ve probably guessed, I don’t think it does.

Competencies are ubiquitous in NZ organisations, and in particular Lominger competencies are prominent in the public sector. The 67 Lominger competencies are very appealing because they are ready made, consistently worded, behavioural indicators for effective performance in ineffective performance are all developed and there are even behavioural indicators for overdeveloped use of each competency.

And yet there is surprisingly little empirical research robustness behind the leadership competency approach, according to Carroll et al and Bolden and Gosling. In spite of competencies having been in widespread use for many years, the concept is not at all proven!! Carroll et al say that "Many of its assumptions do not hold true when subject to scrutiny."

My next post on Tuesday explores the assumptions of competency-based leadership.