I remember when competency models first hit the talent development universe. Using competencies—concretely defined knowledge and behavior statements to document expectations surrounding a position—was a real breakthrough from the fuzzy, abstract language used prior to that time. Soon everyone was off the starting line, creating competency definitions for key positions.

Lately competencies have begun to fall out of favor. A myriad of reasons support the notion of abandoning competent models. Some include:

  • Competency models harken back to the rigid, command and control environments of the past where jobs were fairly static and expectations predictable
  • Competencies encourage us to focus on the wrong things: on demonstration of behaviors and not on outcomes and results

My personal quibble with competency models mirrors both of these concerns. I applauded any effort to clarify role duties and expectations. That said, elaborate competency models, birthed from countless hours of discussion, word-smithing and approval processes tend to take on a life of their own. They calcify into rigid rule structures and soon cease to be current with the nuances of the job. Nowhere is this more evident than in leadership development.

What does it take to be a successful leader today?  If I had the definite answer to that question, I’d be a very wealthy person. That said, there is some interesting new thought percolating the leadership development arena these days that has some real merit. The new buzz word (or more precise, acronym) is VUCA- we live in a world hall marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. These four characteristics aptly describe the waters in which successful leaders need to swim.

The leadership competency models of the past won’t cut it today. When I thumb through the competency models on the dusty shelf of my office, I see attributes such as business acumen, effective communication, time and resource management. For business success today, these individual competencies are the price of admission. They will get a person a seat at the table but will not propel them to long-term success.

New competencies I am hearing emphasized include: intellectual curiosity, self-awareness, building relations across boundaries and creative disruption. If you are leading a business with a fuzzy future (uncertainty) in a threatening regulatory climate (volatile), without a clear roadmap (ambiguous), being self-directed and intellectually open to new and divergent ideas is required.

So how does one acquire this new leadership perspective? Technology is both a help and a hindrance. YouTube and Ted Talks bring development to the masses. You need not be a Harvard student to hear the wisdom of some of their great professors. You need not register for a hot topic symposium months in advance; you can see brilliant speakers any time of the day on numerous internet sites. That’s the good news.

The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff content. The internet provides a plethora of content, unedited, unqualified. One needs to wade through all this to find some good gems. My personal criteria are that the speaker/writer/authority have impeccable credentials, can communicate well and that they stimulate my desire to learn more.

If one is truly intellectually curious, they will pursue a broad range of learning content. Their knowledge acquisition will be focused on what they can use now to be more successful. Theory and abstracts are less valued than experience and application. Leadership development for today’s successful leadership cadre must in itself be VUCA if it is to build the strengths needed for today.