A leadership competency model

This post is about my leadership model. To help the reader understand the components of the model I will give a historic background and present some of the most important factors in leadership research. I present my own research to support the leadership competency model.

History of leadership research

About a hundred years ago researchers and others were mostly interested in trait theories. Leaders were expected to have certain traits or set of traits. Thirty years later some researchers are becoming more interested in leadership style while others start to talk about leadership skills. Robert Katz developed a model in 1955 based on three types of skills: technical skills, human skills and conceptual skills.

Technical skills are the kind of skills, competencies and knowledges you need to handle the core activities within an organization. If your organization is manufacturing clothes the leader has to know about the manufacturing process rather well and also be able to perform some of the steps of the process manually.

The Human skills are about handling people. You could also call them social skills or social competence. Any leader on any level has to have a well-developed social competence. The conceptual skills are needed to see what is going on in an organization from a helicopter perspective and from an outside perspective. A leader needs to know about the vision and goals of an organization to point in the right direction and form strategies for the future. This is also something the leader needs to communicate to the rest of the organization.

The trait theory, the style theory and the skills approach all have the leader centered perspective in common. The main difference between the two former and the Skills approach is the fact that skills are learned. You don’t have to believe that some individuals are born leaders. It is possible for most individuals to learn how to lead.

During the 1960s the interest for leader centered approaches decreased while situational approaches increased. It is the context and the social environment that determines if you are the right person to lead in a certain situation. In the middle of the 1970s it became more and more important to also include the relationship between the leader and the follower. In a relationship you form the way you see the world together and mutually affect each other. To create a joint goal becomes more important. That also includes the ability to develop mutual trust and closeness.

The most influential model to acknowledge the relationship was, and is, the Leader-Member-Exchange model (LMX). Once you have started to see leadership as a relationship you understand that you have a relationship whether it is good or bad, whether you work on it or not. An assumption is that the better the relationship the better the possibilities to lead the organization in the optimal direction.

When the leadership approaches had become less leader-centered for a couple of decades the transformational leadership theory arises in the end of the 1970s and becomes popular during the 1980s. The transformational leadership model is focusing on the leader and the ability to inspire the followers. It is about creating an organizational culture and motivate the followers to strive against the vision and the goals. Transformational leadership is about transforming the organization. Transformational leaders lead towards change. To be able to change in the best possible way you have to learn and change yourself.

While the transformational leadership model became popular Warren Bennis interviewed 90 top-performing leaders. He found out that they all had four leadership competencies in common:

  1. To manage attention or to make followers attend the right things (the vision and goals).
  2. To manage meaning making or to communicate in such a way that the followers understand the vision or goals in a meaningful way.
  3. To manage trust or to create a mutual trust.
  4. Self-management or to know yourself well enough to know what to improve.

While Bennis is often connected to the transformational leadership approach he also has a connection to the skills approach or what now can be called the competences approach. Bennis not only emphasized competence but also started to talk about communication more explicitly. This can be recognized in the works of Kevin Barge who, in the beginning of the 1990s, presented a communication skills model. It includes the core communication competencies effectiveness and appropriateness.

The focus of the communication skills model is to be able to communicate in a single communicative act (I want to communicate a single message and I succeed with that), be able to create patterns of communication and be able to see communication as a part of a larger process. Communication is context dependent and context creating. There is a connection to Bennis addition to his four competencies: manage context and realizing intentions through actions.

You have to know the context in which the organization is placed. You have to know the environment, the laws and rules, the politics, the society, the people, and the trends. Knowing and understanding context to make the right decisions is not enough. You also have to know your own internal environment and be able to create context. The latter can be seen as being proactive while the ones that interpret and act on the changes of the environment are reactive. The best leaders lead the change, shape the way people see things and help others interpret what is going on. A keyword is framing.

Barge also mentions social networks as an important component. Leaders act within networks. They need networks and they influence networks. Networks exist outside the organization and they exist inside the organization. Everyone has a place in the network and this affects the relationship to the leader. Instead of talking about hierarchies you can talk about networks that are flat but have centers and peripheries. The leader is in the center of a network but there might be several centers. Formal and informal leaders may take place in different centers of the same large network or they might be part of the same center but have different roles.

In this millennia new leadership approaches have developed. Some of the most influential are discursive leadership, new trait theory and authentic leadership. Discursive leadership is a communication approach to leadership and it focuses on the discourse or context and states that communication creates and shapes. Leadership communication is about creating context and being affected by context. It is about communicating to create relationships, create relational meaning and being affected by the relationship. New trait theory is going back to the roots but is now based on the Five Factor Model. A well-established personality trait model within the field of psychology. Authentic leadership is about ethics and being true to yourself and others.

In 2014 a review article was published. It showed what leadership theories, models and approaches that were studied the most during the first years of this millennium. Three theories stood out:

Transformational leadership model

Trait theories (especially the Five Factor Model)

Relationship models (typically LMX)

The transformational leadership model was included in more articles than any other theory or model about leadership. It shows its importance. The two other theories are also very influential. Is it because they are simple or popular for some reason or is it because they have empirical support? Several meta-analyses studies show their effectiveness.

When you study the effect of one way to lead in relation to another you have to have some values that are of importance. These are some of the factors that can be used to evaluate the effect of leadership:

  • The leaders’ ability to reach a goal
  • The organizations effectiveness in reaching a goal
  • The employees’ ability to achieve a goal
  • The performance of the employees
  • The satisfaction of the employees
  • The employees’ willingness to recommend the workplace
  • Internal trust and mutual trust
  • Organizational citizenship behavior

It is well known from all the studies that have been done that transformational leaders are effective in reaching their leader goals, the employees are satisfied at work, the employees are satisfied with their leader, there is a high degree of organizational citizenship behavior and the level of organizational and mutual trust is high. According to research on LMX a relationship centered leader has satisfied followers that perform well, the followers are satisfied with their leader, there is a high degree of organizational citizenship behavior and the level of organizational and mutual trust is high.

Important factors from meta-analysis studies

When we know that there are two very effective leadership models maybe there is no need to develop new models or reinvent old ones. I have used another approach and that is to look at what factors that are leading to leadership success, still having the factors above in mind to know what success is. All of the important factors I have found from a huge amount of meta-analysis studies I have divided them into a primary group, a secondary group and a tertiary group based on their influence.

Primary factors:

  • Communication competence
  • Forming a clear and relevant goal
  • Inspire/motivate
  • Leader showing trust (follower feeling trusted)

Secondary factors:

  • Follower is trusting the leader
  • The leader being in control (or feeling that he or she has a feeling of control over the situation/organization)
  • The leaders’ emotional intelligence
  • The leaders’ ability to create and share joy

Tertiary factors:

  • Extraversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness
  • Emotional stability
  • Intelligence
  • Cognitive executive abilities
  • Social capital
  • The leaders’ ability to communicate the role of the employee

The four first tertiary factors are all part of the Five Factor Model (FFM). Meta-analysis studies have stated the overall impact of the FFM. It is way too high to be ignored. Most good leaders are extraverts, conscientious, open to new experiences and emotionally stable. The ones that have these traits are more effective as leaders compared to leaders that have less of these traits.

My own studies

Even if the primary, secondary and tertiary factors above definitely have an impact on leadership effectiveness they have not been included in the same study. Therefore I designed a survey that could answer four main questions and at the same time also answer which one of the factors above that have the highest impact on these four outcomes that I wanted to get an answer to.

  1. How does leadership influence how optimistic an employee is about the future of the current work role/profession?
  2. Are you doing a good job?
  3. Do you do more than is expected from you (in addition to the job description)?
  4. What other factors are associated to competent leadership?

The traditions or approaches presented above have influenced my leadership model but the answers to these four questions are confirming my belief in the importance of the different components of the model.

The results are based on almost 800 complete questionnaires. The participants are followers from Sweden working in the child care sector, the primary school sector and within the library sector. They respond to statements about their closest leader.

The first question is divided into two parts. (1) What is the general view on the future for the profession? (2) How likely is it that I am still working within this field in the future?

The three factors that have an impact on the first questions (part one) the leaders vision for the activity, the leaders goals for the activity and how much the leader is giving positive feedback on the good work that the employees are doing. The single most important factor of these three is the leaders’ goals for the activity/department/organization. If the leader can point out the future direction and give feedback for good work going in the right direction give the employees a positivity about their workplace and profession.

The three factors that actually have an impact on the willingness to stay in the organization and keep the profession in the future are goals, feedback and trust. If the leader is communicating clear and relevant goals, are giving positive feedback for good work and are trusting the employees the employees are likely to stay while the opposite leads to a willingness to try another profession. Leaders have a huge impact on how followers see the professional world and giving it meaning.

Why do employees perform well at work? In my study there are three factors that answer this question better than the others. (1) the leader is forming clear and relevant goals for the activity/organization. (2) the leader inspires and motivates the employees. (3) the followers trust their leader. The single most important factor is the leaders’ goals. With clear and relevant (reasonable) goals it is easier to perform well as a follower.

I wanted to find out if organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) was affected by the leader and aspects of leadership. The leaders’ knowledge about the core activities has a small but significant effect and the leaders’ communication competence has a small but significant effect. The organizational citizenship behavior is often a part of the organizational culture and has in turn a positive effect on job performance and job satisfaction. If the leader, as it is suggested by some leadership models, can shape the organizational culture they should also be able to affect the OCB. The relationship is not big enough to claim the importance of the two factors for this special case.

For the fourth question I worked with ten hypotheses:

H1 A competent leader has good knowledge and know-how of the core activities of the workplace.

H2 A competent leader is forming a clear and relevant vision for the organization/department.

H3 A competent leader is forming clear and relevant goals for the organization/department.

H4 A competent leader is concerned in creating good relations to the employees.

H5 A competent leader is concerned in creating mutual trust.

H6 A competent leader has a certain set of personality traits.

H7 A competent leader is inspiring and motivating the employees.

H8 A competent leader is a competent communicator.

H9 A competent leader is communicating in a clear way.

H10 A competent leader is giving positive feedback to the followers.

All the factors above have high correlations to the leadership competence factor (between 0.48 and 0.82; p<0.001). In a regression analysis seven of the factors have an impact on what competent leadership is. Together they can explain 76 % of competent leadership.

It was confirmed that competent leaders have a good knowledge and understanding of the core content of the workplace is about. Competent leaders form clear and relevant goals for the organization/department. Competent leaders are concerned in creating good relationships with their followers. The first, third and forth hypotheses where confirmed. The second and fifth were not.

The followers believe that a competent leader has a set of certain personality traits. Competent leaders are good communicators (good communication competence) and communicate in clear ways. The hypotheses H6, H8 and H9 are confirmed. H7 and H10 are not.

Six of the ten hypotheses were confirmed. The five most important factors, that together can explain for 75 % of the content of competent leadership are:

  • Content know-how
  • Forming clear and relevant goals
  • Creating good relationships
  • Having a set of personality traits
  • Communicate in a clear way

To put it simple, the participants of the study that to a high degree agree that their leader is a competent leader also agree to a high degree that the leader has organizational core know-how, form clear and relevant goals, create good realtionships with the follower, have a set of personality traits (a set of trait expetced from the participant) and communicate in a clear way.

To communicate in a clear way is more important than the general communication competence. This is not very surprising. In a survey that I designed and conducted I wanted to know what the most important communication competences for leaders were. From a list of 27 sub-competences five stood out as more important.

  1. Clarity/Clear communication (including giving clear instructions)
  2. Effectiveness
  3. Appropriateness
  4. Be a good listener (and give feedback)

Even if communication researchers claim that effectiveness and appropriateness are the core competences, leadership is very much about clarity. So much that it is considered the communication competence. About 350 individuals participated. Most of them were followers but also some leaders.

After this I continued with an interview study about leaders view on clarity, what it is and how you do it. I intreviewed 20 leaders on different organizational levels. That study can be described in detail some other time.

Back to the five factors I now have confirmed. Four out of these five are my main components and the fifth is one of the supporting components. Therefore it is now time for me to present the leadership competence model.

A leadership competency model




The four main components of this model is the know-how foundation (detailed knowledge about and experience of the basic activities of the organization), the vision and goals top component, the communication competence and the relationship competence. The most important communication competence is clarity but effectiveness, appropriateness and listening skills are also central parts of it. The relationship competence component includes mutual trust and emotional intelligence.

As I have showed above personality traits are important, maybe more important than it appears in the model. It has to be a part of it. There are five other supportive components that needs to be explained. Control stands for a sense of having the situation under control. It is not about controlling others. Self-awareness stands for what is also called self-leadership or the knowledge and understanding of own abilities and needs. You have to know yourself to be able to develop as a leader.

When you have good knowledge about what is going on inside of the organization and you know how things are done on the “floor”, you feel that you have things under control and that in turn can help you form clear and relevant goals. To be able to go on in direction towards the goals you have to make several decisions on how to do things in the future. Decision-making is one of the most common things leaders do every day. You have to do it and you can be good at it.

When you form goals and communicate these goals to the employees you have to give feedback to the employees to give them a clue if they are going in the right direction or not. When people know what to do they don’t always respond to it in the most positive way. They might need an extra push. If you are able to inspire and motivate they can be more willing to do things in a new way. One of the best ways for a leader to motivate is to know the person well, have a close professional relationship. If you know how a particular employee is motivated you can help that person move in the new and right direction.

The first two questions that I wanted answers to were about the future of the profession and job performance. The most important factor in both cases was clear and relevant goals. It is obviously central to a successful organization. Two other factors that was mentioned was feedback and motivation. Feedback is affecting how the employee sees the profession and motivation is affecting the job performance. Trust is also relevant to both of these questions. Trust in the employee is important for the profession and trust in the leader is important for job performance. Therefore mutual trust between the leader and the follower is crucial.

What you don’t see as components in the model are context and networks/social capital. I have already described how context is affecting an organization and this remains true. No organization exist without context. Every organization exist within an environment that is mutually affected. The organization is affected by the environment and is also affecting the environment. A leader has to take this into account in every decision. Leaders, follower and other actors/stakeholders are part of one or several social networks. They affect these networks, more if they are in the center of a network, and are affected by them. A good leader has a high social capital and therefore can take advantage of their networks to a higher degree.

All of the components in the model, the explicit ones and the implicit ones, are competences that can be learned and developed. Some components may be more stable than others. Some do easily change.

A modern leader is not only authentic and have all the competences that are part of the model. If you are a good learner you are also an adaptive leader. According to Warren Bennis adaptability is very important today. Leaders that have all the competences in the model are adaptable. They understand their own organization in its bigger context and can shape the future for themselves and their followers. Knowledge is a key. The more you know, the more of an expert you are, the better equipped you are to understand the whole context and change.

The leadership competence model is a model of modern leadership based on competence, knowledge and learning. Some would say that there are no leaders. There are people attempting to lead, always learning to become what they see as an ideal leader. You are becoming a leader rather than being one.


24 Jul 2019