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07.18.07

The Importance of Competence

Competence alone can’t make a leader, but it can undo one. While inaction is a prime problem facing many organizations (and individuals for that matter), there’s the very real possibility that one is doing the wrong thing. An incompetent leader has almost unlimited opportunities to be ineffective. Knowing what to do—professional competence—is vital.

Being competent doesn’t mean that a leader knows how to do everything, but rather that they know what to do and how to get it done. Even the most brilliant leader who tries to go it on their own is setting themselves up for failure. A good leader will know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and thus know what kind of expertise they will need to surround themselves with.

While many “leaders” are often selected for their competence alone, competence is something different from character or leadership competence, and should not be confused. We have placed too much emphasis on professional competence and not enough on character. And it has gotten us into trouble. Traditional business schools have excelled at teaching professional competence, but have mostly failed to impress on individuals the need to develop a moral compass to use those skills appropriately.

In Extremis Leadership
Yet, competence is a critical part of the whole leadership picture. Socrates believed that the “one who clearly knows best what ought to be done will most easily gain the obedience of the others.” Competence engenders confidence in a leader. Competence, trust and loyalty are “inextricably intertwined” says In Extremis Leadership author Thomas Kolditz. “Leader competence is usually at the root of loyalty and trust problems.” He writes:
Most leaders have gotten to their station in life through their own competence, but that becomes lost on followers unless the leader’s competence is occasionally revealed by action.

Some leaders try to build trust and loyalty through social events such as golf or team-building activities, but loyalty and trust problems can’t be fixed with a trip to a rock-climbing school.

Leaders need to take the time and effort to show followers what they’re good at and why followers should be confident in the leader’s ability. Use care, however, never to upstage or embarrass someone else as you demonstrate competence. In the end, leadership is about the success of your people, not about you.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:52 AM
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Comments

I have been in several leadership positions in the past decade. And I have found the statement above "a good leader will know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and thus know what kind of expertise they will need to surround themselves with" to be very true. Only the second part about surrounding oneself with the right expertise is not always available. The majority of my experiences have been falling in on an existing organization, team or culture and then having to lead who was present. Very few times have I had the luxury of building my team, for a future event. Thus one of the core competencies of a good leader is building others through coaching and mentoring. This goes right back to the final sentence that "in the end, leadership is about the success of your people, not about you"

I couldn't agree more about the need for professional competence. In the military, the higher I have progressed the more I am reminded that it is not in the doing that we demonstrate competence but in the thinking, aligning, developing, inspiring, and leading. And we do all of that - with and through competent people who trust us. Thanks for this reminder.

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