Leadership or executive competencies – there is a fascination with defining and measuring the characteristics of great leadership. At times, it can feel like an exercise in academics.

Recently, a colleague asked me to review a list of competencies that she was developing for an Organizational Development Master’s degree program in a couple of areas – one of them was leadership development.

The list was ….well a list. There were lots of boxes to check representing the knowledge someone needed to have to become an organizational development specialist. The missing link for me was how someone puts that knowledge into action.

As a manager of people or a human resources development specialist, knowing how to carefully select the types of experiences (which may not be positions or roles) can make or break a career.

Fundamentally if you are a good leader, it is because of what you do, not what title you wear. Knowing how to translate it into actionable experiences is valuable skill.

Lessons of Experience

One of the primers I often refer people to is Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job by Morgan W. McCall, Michael M. Lombardo and Ann M. Morrison when they want to know how to become a great leader.

Some of you are going to tell me this book is outdated (published in 1988) but if you write about something timeless, it really doesn’t matter.

There are five major themes the executives that emerged from the 191 executives they interviewed:

  1. Setting and Implementing Agendas
  2. Handling Relationships
  3. Basic Values
  4. Executive Temperament
  5. Personal Awareness

Within each of these themes are individual lessons which set the stage for major learning thrusts. When organizations and leaders facilitate the learning process with specific experiences and allow failures to be a part of the process, talent grows exponentially.

Companies and organizational specialists who want to make it work do not view this approach as a process. The authors define the working relationship as:

  1. Development is organizationally specific. Managers do it because it helps people to function better in an organization.
  2. Development is part of a long-term business plan. There should be a direct rise in managerial effectiveness with the effort.
  3. Development involves proving opportunities. When situations arise providing relevant lessons and experience, the organization takes advantage of it to develop their leadership.
  4. Development is a conscious effort. Deliberate planning and attention to individual development is done in conjunction with happenstance development.

The level of commitment a company needs to make is not insurmountable, though it needs to be consistent and purposeful.

As a participant in this kind of development, you will find your limits tested. It requires a personal commitment beyond the “normal” career progressions, often with sacrifices, especially in fast track programs.

For example, frequent relocation may be necessary to avail yourself of specific experiences within the company at different divisions or facilities.

Whether you are someone in the position of developing others or are want to manage your own career with more rigor, you will find many pearls of wisdom and practical examples of “how to do it” vs. just a list of what needs to be done.