We are bringing light to a distinction between leadership competencies and leadership capacity that is absolutely critical in the leadership development field, because not understanding this distinction severely limits equipping leaders to handle today’s challenges.

Training and development professionals are often tasked with making lists of leadership competencies, which are generally presented as leadership behaviors and skills that, when developed, can contribute to superior performance. We can use the example of “collaboration.” Collaborative leaders clearly drive higher engagement and generate better and more sustainable results.

Leadership capacity is the ability to think and then act in ways that are more effective during times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. Increasing leadership capacity (rather than just teaching competencies) is known as vertical development.

What is the difference between competencies and capacity?

In our work, we use a map of adult development applied to leadership, Levels of Development-in-Action (see Figure 1). Just as children keep changing “operating systems” throughout their young lives, as adults we keep developing at later-stage “operating systems.”

Think of competencies as software on a computer, which become increasingly more effective using more advanced operating systems. Leadership capacity is about the structure of our thinking – not what we think about but rather how we think about it.

What is different for leaders at later stages of adult development?

  • Leaders are more reflective. They think more about what they are doing and how to do it better.
  • They are better able to take perspectives (putting themselves in others’ shoes) and to seek perspectives (asking questions to understand how others see things).
  • They are better able to integrate multiple factors, and thus make decisions that incorporate the perspectives of different stakeholders (employees, customers, etc.), multiple timelines (short-term, long-term), and more.
  • They are likely to have greater self-awareness, and allow themselves to be more vulnerable, acknowledging that they do not have all the answers and need the perspectives of others to optimize results. This allows them to be better at developing others and creating contexts imbued with safety and trust that then generate better solutions to complex problems.

Leaders who think at earlier stages of development will over-simplify complex problems. They will look for “one right answer” or “who is to blame.” Their approaches to these complex problems are inherently limited and likely will not know it.

For example, imagine a group of leaders attend a workshop about collaboration. One leader tends to see things only in terms of his own perspective. He assumes he knows the “right” way to do things, believes there is “one right answer,” has low self-awareness, and has difficulty admitting when he is not sure of something. Imagine how limited his collaboration will be. He may ask others superficial questions, mostly to get their buy-in to what he has already decided, but others know better than to question him.

Another leader knows that complex situations require the integration of multiple perspectives, has no problem exhibiting vulnerability by saying and believing they don’t know all the answers, and provides a context that makes it clear that all perspectives are valued and welcomed. There is no fear that ideas will be dismissed or discounted or ridiculed. Imagine how rich the collaboration will be and how much more effective in driving sustainable organizational results.

The Basic Problem in the Field of Leadership Development

More than half of all leaders think like the first leader we described above, and those leaders have little choice to think at a more advanced level in the moment. Only about 10 percent think like the second leader.

Can you understand the problem? Having talent development professionals create a list of competencies does not mean that most leaders have the capacity to “run” those competencies using a sufficiently advanced “operating system” to actually embody them.

And most training and development professionals do not know how to assist leaders in upgrading their overall operations systems or capacity. They can present trainings on their lists of competencies but much of that energy is wasted. Leaders, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot “will” themselves to a later-stage level of development.

The other problem with lists of competencies is that all leaders already have a day job and have very little bandwidth for integrating new ideas. As we wrote in a previous article for Training Industry, Awareness ≠ Change. Change is hard and takes repeated cycles of action and reflection throughout the day. Even with the most sophisticated approaches we know, integrating advanced in neuroscience, one or two areas of change are all we can handle.

Capability is Also Important

It is important to note that the ability for a leader to actually do something depends on more than their internal competency and capacity. There is also capability. For example, it also depends on the context in which that leader is leading: What resources are available? What behaviors are allowed and/or rewarded in that organization? What are the competencies and capacities of his or her team?

Imagine two leaders identical in their competencies and capacity. One is in a situation with very limited resources, a hiring and spending freeze, and has legacy employees who were promoted for tenure rather than ability. The other has a large budget and the ability to have the right people in the right roles. Their current capability to take effective action will be different.

Increasing Vertical Development

It is very important to understand that the level at which a leader functions is not “fixed.” Leaders can and do make leaps in their overall capacity. What does that take? It helps when they have leaders around them who function at a later-stage level, when they see limitations or gaps in their own leadership thinking and action, and when they are motivated to stretch themselves and grow. But even with all these factors, they also need to be provided the right opportunity, exposure to capacity-building curriculum, and a learning context that is based on an understanding of Levels of Development-in-Action, where they are presented tools and models that “stretch their brains.”

Our brains change slowly over time with regular ongoing cycles of action and reflection. They do not change through attending a single workshop, no matter how well the material is presented. Willing participants need to be coupled with skilled trainers who function at a later-stage level and understand how to build capacity (rather than just teach competencies). And then they need to be given the time and support to grow, where they can be provided a safe environment to try new ways of thinking and acting.

If training and development professionals do not function at a sufficiently later-stage level of development, they will be unable to assist leaders in increasing capacity. This is one problem with many train-the-trainer approaches. Unfortunately, in our experience, the field of training and development is largely unaware of levels of development and does not know how to promote actual capacity building.

Unless you have specifically been introduced to levels of adult development, these models will be new to you. If you try to map them onto other ideas or models, you will lose the point. This is not about IQ. Two people with the same IQ can function at very different Levels of Development-in-Action, and therefore, capacity. This also has nothing to do with personality models, styles of leadership, experience, age-related maturity, or one’s management level. It has a lot to do with what learning approaches and environments someone has been exposed to, and their motivation coupled with having the right opportunities.

In order to assist leaders in moving to later-stage levels of development, whether we’re in the role of leader, consultant, trainer, coach, human resources, talent management or human capital professionals, we have to first be functioning at later-stage levels of development than those leaders.

If you are drawn to what we have shared, then please take the time to understand the difference between competencies and capacity to build your own capacity so you can assist others to do the same.

We hope this article has stimulated some new thinking, and that we have made a compelling case for why it is imperative to consciously craft opportunities and contexts that support vertical development in order for our leaders to deal more effectively with complex problems.