What is a Leadership Core Competency?

Businesses that are serious about leading their industry and remaining competitive in the marketplace choose to establish a list of leadership core competencies that can be used as a guide for its workforce. A leadership core competency is a characteristic or skill identified by an organization as desirable in a leader that will help align individual actions and behaviors and create a high-performance culture. These can be established as general organization-wide leadership competencies or they can be targeted to very specific job requirements.

Once identified, the competencies help the organization communicate consistent expectations to leaders and individuals across the organization so they understand the skills, characteristics, and behaviors that are required to be successful, advance their career, and drive organizational results.

How do I identify leadership competencies?

There are two primary ways in which you can identify leadership competencies for your organization.

  1. Logic-Based Competency Identification – These competencies are based on reasoning and conclusions that often come from senior leaders, HR teams, or others key stakeholders in the organization.
  2. Evidence-Based Competency Identification – These competencies are identified through empirically based data or information gathered from within the organization (for example, employee satisfaction surveys).

Competencies can also be derived from a blend of both logic and evidence-based processes. When and where it is possible, it is advantageous to have good data that drives any decision-making process. At a fundamental level, there are three factors that inform the process of identifying core leadership competencies.

  • Data
  • Analysis
  • Objectives

There may be other elements that will help an organization determine which competencies to ultimately select such as the culture, type of workforce, the nature of the work being done, etc.

Core competencies in strategic management

When looking at core competencies from an individual or team level, you have to think about them as a network of mutually reinforcing talents, skill sets, and repositories of experience that fit and align with the strategic intent of the business. They are those capabilities, talents, practices, and processes that can be developed and leveraged to help the organization create value for internal stakeholders and external customers. In order to be competitive, members of the organization need to discover and develop both technical competencies as well as behavioral competencies, mindsets, and values required by the enterprise to stand out in the marketplace.

When individual team members or functions of the business are doing the same work as people in a rival organization—but doing it better—the business is able to create a competitive advantage and produce superior returns on invested capital. Keep in mind that the ability of an organization to execute its strategy depends on people and their talent, ingenuity, and determination to achieve strategic goals and targets.

Ultimately, it takes creativity and innovative thinking to not only adopt accepted best practices but go beyond and create cutting-edge next practices and processes that are unique and help differentiate the business in ways that create a competitive edge.

What are some examples of Leadership Core Competencies?

The list of potential leadership core competencies is broad and deep. However, based on our global research across a variety of organizations, we’ve identified a list of the most commonly sought-after competencies that businesses and their employees want their leaders to demonstrate. Here are a few examples.

  • Communication Skills (listening, sharing information, asking questions, being clear, etc.)
  • Interpersonal Skills (building rapport and emotional connections, being supportive, having empathy, demonstrating respect, etc.)
  • Coaching and Feedback (constructive and productive in a variety of situations including development, enforcement, alignment, and improvement)
  • Strategic Thinking and Direction (visionary, planning, and formulating the future in a way that is balanced with agility, patience, and reason)

How do I Measure a Leadership Core Competency?

The most straightforward method of measuring a person’s level of ability in any competency is using a quick evaluation rating scale. The purpose of the rating scale is to allow leaders and employees to pinpoint where someone is at with their competency proficiency regardless if they are a front-line, mid-level, or senior leader. The type of ratings and proficiency scale vary greatly. Based on our experience, we recommend organizations use anywhere from a 3 to 5-point rating scale. This range allows for simplicity and ease in the evaluation process. Here are some samples of what a proficiency rating scale might look like. There are countless variations of descriptors that can be used to best describe each level of the scale.

Three-point Scale

  1. Essential
  2. Developed
  3. Advanced

Four-point Scale:

  1. Aware (Basic Knowledge)
  2. Novice
  3. Intermediate
  4. Advanced
  5. Master

Five-point scale

  1. Limited
  2. Basic
  3. Proficient
  4. Advanced
  5. Expert

When outlining your competency proficiency rating scale, it is important to include a brief description of each proficiency level.

What is a Leadership Competency Development Guide and how do I develop one?

Once leadership competencies and a ratings scale have been established, they should be outlined in a reference guide that provides a working definition of each competency and a brief description of each proficiency level. A competency development guide is a resource or tool that is developed to support leaders, employees, and other personnel as they collaborate and identify competencies that should be focused on for improvement purposes. This document is a tool that solidifies a common understanding of each competency provides a common benchmark that drives higher levels of consistency across the organization when evaluations are administered or when coaching for development.

The critical elements that should be included in this development guide include

  • Identifies and defines each competency
  • Outlines the abilities that determine each level of the proficiency rating scale (e.g., Essential, Developed, Advanced) to allow for quick evaluation
  • Provides a brief overview of how an individual might coach to a competency
  • Includes ideas, actions, and available tools and resources to help a person improve in each competency area.

The following examples illustrate information that might be included for a specific competency in a Leadership Competency Development Guide.

Example #1

This example uses a question-asking approach to help identify the leader’s competency level and approach in this area.

Competency Area: Open Mindedness

Description: Does the person go beyond the obvious and seek out more information. Is the person interested in exploring new situations and new approaches? The drive to learn more about the environment, things and people, by asking probing questions, or doing ad hoc research to gain a better understanding of the context.


Gathers general information

  • Give me a recent example of when you have been new to a project or task.
  • How did you ensure you got up to speed quickly?
  • How did you ensure you didn’t cause issues for those already involved in the situation?
  • Give me an example of how you avoided making assumptions about a situation and what were the benefits of doing so?
  • In a recent task, what opportunity was there to make assumptions about the situation?
  • Did you do so? How did you overcome this and what did you have to do to change the situation?


Digs deeper using different approaches

  • Describe a recent task or project where the basic information was not enough to help you make a decision or progress on the task.
  • What did you do to ensure you didn’t miss any vital components or diverse pieces of information?
  • What was the difficulty in doing this and what did you do to overcome it?
  • How have you ensured you have gone beyond the presenting problem or issue when faced with a complex or difficult situation?
  • What obstacles were put in your way?
  • How did you get around them?


Scans the environment widely and constantly

  • How do you ensure you are kept up to date in your area of expertise? What are the risks of doing it this way and what have you proactively done to question and update this approach?
  • How would your team describe your methods of getting information? Could you do anything else to add to this? Is there someone who does this differently to you that you could learn from?
  • What actions have you taken recently to develop your network of contacts internally and externally?

Example #2

This example provides an outcome objective with a list of desirable behaviors to describe the core leadership competency.

Competency Area: Coaching

Description: We will be able to achieve our goals as an organization if leaders invest in our people and provide clear, consistent, and regular coaching that helps them achieve optimum performance.

  • Seeks formal and informal opportunities to enhance the performance and capabilities of others.
  • Sets clear expectations and guides others about how to execute tasks or jobs.
  • Coaches people by giving them timely, constructive feedback and encouragement.
  • Sets up regular one-to-one meetings to discuss performance and development.
  • Matches the right individuals at the right time to the job that needs to be done.
  • Treats the mistakes of others as opportunities for coaching development rather than penalizing them.
  • Helps people discover solutions to problems or challenges rather than telling them what to do.
  • Uses coaching and mentoring as a tool when onboarding new team members.

A competency development guide can be basic and to the point or can be an extensive resource guide with tools and resources. A common approach to building out a guide would include the following elements

  • Introduction to the Guide
  • Competency in Brief (this would apply to each competency)
    • Definition
    • Key elements
    • Demonstrated behaviors where appropriate
    • Summary
  • Tools and Resources (this may vary depending on the depth of the guide)
    • Development Needs Assessment to pinpoint observable behaviours (for each competency area)
    • Tools for Teaching and Feedback
    • Development Suggestions
    • Key Coaching Reminders
  • Notes page for recording information about the coaching discussion that you can refer to during follow-up coaching discussions or formal evaluations.

When should leaders and employees be evaluated against leadership competencies?

A competency evaluation is a great starting point for the employee’s development plan. At a minimum, employees and leadership should be evaluated based on established competencies during a formal review period. Most organizations conduct a formal review bi-annually or annually. While leaders and employees should work through development plans during formal reviews to identify short- and long-term milestones, it is equally important for leaders to coach employees during informal, day to day interactions. This added approach helps to address competency gaps in real time and reinforce leadership strengths. Our research reveals the most effective development will occur from on-the-job experiences.  When organizations grow their people, they can grow their business, impact results, and create a strong pool of future talent.

Why is it important to coach for competency development?

Leaders and coaches are the catalysts for change. The employees you lead or coach may or may not be fully aware of their development needs or how to leverage their strengths more effectively. As a coach you will be leading an important effort to help them see opportunity to change and contribute more value to the business. If we elevate the organization’s human capital, competitiveness in the marketplace will improve. Executing business strategies requires people who are advancing from the essential level on each competency to the advanced level. Achieving results over the long term require creating a culture of feedback and willingness to experiment with new behaviors and skills.

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