Jessica Bronzert via Ellevate Network

Two of the biggest issues facing businesses today is the rate of change and complexity in the marketplace. Companies able to respond quickly when markets, technology and consumer demand fluctuate and evolve are ones that survive and grow. Those who react slowly and fail to innovate — Borders Books, Blackberry, and Blockbuster anyone? – swiftly become obsolete. In fact, IBM’s survey of 1,500 CEOs underscores the importance they place on complexity, ranking it as their #1 concern. What is most distressing, however, is the gap similar “complexity crisis” research exposed: that as leaders assume more senior positions, the disparity between the expectations of their roles and their own capabilities widen significantly.

How do we narrow the gap? Leadership development is most often the go-to solution, but more often than not, those programs focus almost exclusively on developing competencies, such as having difficult conversations, time management and delegating. Although competency development is important, it is insufficient for sustained, meaningful change in leader effectiveness and business outcomes. Nick Petrie, senior faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership, supports this assertion, arguing that a competency-based approach is limited in its success, especially for senior leaders, primarily because of its focus on the “what” of leadership instead of the “how” of leadership.

So, again, the question is how do we lessen the gap? In a word: capacity. We need to shift our focus from competency to fostering capacity, in yourself, your employees, and your company to successfully adapt and meet the demands of an ever-evolving marketplace. Bob Anderson, author of Mastering Leadership, likens capacity to a smartphone with an outdated operating system. While you can add as many new apps (skills) as you want, it doesn’t mean the phone can run them.

The operating system is the linchpin. It represents the way you view the world and attribute meaning to what you see. And, just as the operating system’s successive versions build on the one before it in a linear fashion so does an individual’s capacity (or development).

Take my client Michelle* as an example. When we first began working together, we utilized a formal assessment to measure her capacity. The results revealed Michelle possessed an advanced operating system, one capable of seeing into the future, developing an ambitious vision for what’s possible, and creating win-win solutions along the way. In short, her operating system could handle a high degree of complexity while achieving transformational results.

However, when I interviewed several of Michelle’s superiors, peers and direct reports, they painted a much different picture. They described someone who was overly steeped in her expertise, had difficulty partnering with peers, occasionally exhibited anger and aggressiveness, and was unable to take an enterprise perspective. From a tenure and positioning perspective, Michelle was the obvious choice to succeed her boss. The chorus of concern regarding her readiness and the general lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of working with her in this position spoke volumes — so much so that the management team responsible for selecting her boss’ successor intended to launch a nationwide external search.

Simply focusing on competencies would not be sufficient to help Michelle close the gap between where she was and what her capacity showed was possible. While we addressed skill-based issues, the majority of the time we focused on growing Michelle’s capacity to navigate complexity and therefore lead in broader, more inclusive ways.

How can you do this? There are a few key ways:

  • Focus on self-awareness – Growing your capacity is synonymous with growing your consciousness. Look at how you look at the world. What assumptions do you make?
  • Get on the balcony – Imagine yourself standing on a balcony above the situation you find yourself in. From this heightened perspective, what looks different? What new potential moves do you see?
  • Create win-win outcomes – Increased capacity is associated with meeting the needs of more stakeholders more of the time. Instead of viewing situations from a win/lose perspective, how can you create win-wins (or at least get closer to them)?

Within a year, Michelle secured her place as next-in-command following her boss’ retirement. She now receives substantially improved feedback from stakeholders, and her own sense of ease and fulfillment at work is palpable. Most critically, her improved leadership abilities now allow her to implement meaningful change more effectively, not only improving her own success, but her organization’s ability to meet their mission.

The conclusion? There’s a clear correlation between capacity and results. David Rooke and William Torbert’s research conclusively underscores this point, demonstrating that a certain level of capacity is best able to deliver transformational results – one that very few adults reach. It is, and should be then, the imperative of every business to nurture and develop their leadership’s capacity. In doing so, they not only gain a distinct advantage in today’s rapidly changing environment, but position themselves for continued success in the future.

*Michelle’s name was changed to maintain her privacy.


This article originally appeared on