Less is More: Leading with Fewer Executive Competencies in an Ever More Complex Operating Environment

I have addressed the challenges of leadership in complex and volatile operating environments in previous posts and I have pointed to the kinds of skills and traits that are more likely to serve leaders in contemporary environments, including a model of strategic leadership. The reality, however, is that there is no way that any one leader can possess, let alone have expertise in, the multitude of competencies that are often described in the literature today. As an example, a recent report from the Aspen Institute identified no less than 18 competencies required of the contemporary university president!

In fact, as organizations and the environments they operate in become more complicated and the pace of change more accelerated, it may be that executives are better served by narrowing the things they have to be really good at and get right, rather than trying to do it all.

In an ideal world, a senior leader would have great finance chops, be a world-class communicator (internal and external), have deep operational and planning skills, be an excellent people manager with great empathy, intuition, and interpersonal intelligence, and be a visionary as well. On the other hand, if such leaders do exist, there are certainly far fewer of them than there are leadership positions.

What to do? As I approach 30 years of work in a broad variety of organizations and 20 plus years in fairly senior management and leadership roles, it is becoming clear that it is better for a leader to have fewer of the most critical skills and traits, but to excel in those areas, rather than to try to be expert in an impossible number of competencies.

From my experience, as it relates to contemporary organizations and environments, the three most critical skills for executive level leaders today are strategic planning/implementation (and a strategic focus), change management, and people management. The most important knowledge requirements are organizational dynamics and human behavior. And the most important traits are intuition, self-awareness, tolerance for ambiguity, and interpersonal intelligence.

Of course most leaders will possess some technical expertise based on previous experience, and that expertise can bring value, but what makes a really good COO or CEO is not their knowledge of accounting or marketing or technology, etc. What makes them truly valuable is their ability to make many other people successful by driving to a shared vision, maximizing teamwork, providing strategic insight, managing change, marshaling resources, engendering confidence, taking risks, etc. None of that comes from technical expertise. In fact, although helpful, even operational expertise is less important than strategy and change management in today’s environment for senior leaders.

Of course, a related key to success for senior managers and leaders is that they ensure that other people in the organization have the expertise that they might be lacking and that the organization itself is configured for success. The executive may not be a finance expert, for example, but someone on his team better be. Likewise, the organization must be staffed and configured in ways that are amenable to change, innovation, risk-taking, etc. The same applies to any other technical area of importance in the organization.

In short, the ever-increasing complexity of leadership challenges combined with the increasing rate of change, is outpacing the capacity of even the most capable leaders to effectively address all of the competencies that are now being ascribed to contemporary leaders. As such, this may truly be a case where less is more. Being really effective in a few key areas will likely bring much more value than being mediocre in an impossibly large number of areas. Strategy, vision, and change and people management can be the basis of highly effective leadership in even the most complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments.

2 thoughts on “Less is More: Leading with Fewer Executive Competencies in an Ever More Complex Operating Environment

  1. […] Now, in my 25th year of management and 30th year in the “professional” work place, through many failures and successes, I have come to understand several “keys to success” that transcend culture or organizational structure or financial model, etc. There are no profound secrets here, but I have both scars and victories that serve to identify what has been most important and what I believe is transferable to almost any leadership context from entry level manager to CEO, in virtually any organizational context. Some of these things relate to leaders as individuals and some relate to organizations. You can also see how “less is more” for most leaders here. […]

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