Where Is the Competence?

Steve Coats

In the ongoing Characteristics of Admired Leaders survey measurements, the attribute of competence has consistently been one of the four most frequently selected items (by approximately 68% of respondents), indicating that people have a strong expectation that their leaders know what they are doing. But with virtually every facet of the business economy plummeting over the past few months, the question of competence has been gnawing at me.  Specifically, where is it?  Where are the capabilities required to lead companies (and the country, for that matter) forward?  Based on recent performance scorecards, competence appears to be lacking. 

It is often said that anyone can steer a ship in calm waters, but it takes competence at the helm to navigate treacherous seas—like the ones we now find ourselves in.  And my perception is that very few people in senior leadership positions—whether in the public and private sector—are competent to effectively navigate in the crippling times we are currently encountering.  During what we once called the 'calmer' waters of the early 2000s, growth (or at least the illusion of it) was literally taken for granted.   But look what has happened since the economic storms moved in. There appears to be more reactive behavior than proactive, innovative action.

I am likely not the only one disappointed with the current performance of our business and government leaders.  But, why should this competence shortage be surprising?  Most of those in leadership positions today have never had to deal with the situations they are now confronting.  While they may be seasoned leaders, that doesn't mean they are fully capable of dealing with everything thrown their way.  However, keep in mind: we know that the best leaders—TLC-type leaders—take on the task of constantly preparing themselves for unknown challenges.  They are continuously learning, experiencing, blundering, and learning some more.  I wonder if too many of our current leaders got caught up in the belief that the seas would always be relatively calm and that their positions automatically made them competent to steer the ship. 

Consider Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, at the helm when US Airways flight 1549 needed to be brought to safety—in the Hudson River.  Last I looked, learning how to fly a glider was not mandatory for pilots, but many people are forever grateful that Sully had taken the time to build his capabilities. The life-threatening, emergency situation he was thrown into was an entirely new and unprecedented challenge for him.  Yet, in his interview on 60 Minutes, he commented that he was absolutely certain he could safely land his plane on the water.  What a statement!  Never forget that competence builds confidence.

Although there are many areas in which leaders must be competent, there are three (perhaps a bit unusual ones) on which I hope future leaders will continue to focus development time and energy. 

  1. Know right from wrong, and courageously act on what is right.  (Hmm, there is that Model the Way thing again.) 
  2. Lead for the future, not for the quarter.  Think about the number of 'invincible' companies that have lost sight of this and have ceased to exist—or are on the verge of collapse—as a result.    
  3. Understand the importance of and find ways to pursue the common good, not just the selfish, immediate win.  There are consequences when commission-driven, valueless products that produce immediate wealth for individual companies or people are allowed to trump longer term, value-based offerings that produce enduring wealth for customers and societies, along with profit for companies and their workers.

Let us hope that all leaders will add these three important factors to what they must do well in order to navigate through the treacherous seas of our time.

Steve Coats is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm, and a Leadership Challenge® Workshop Master Facilitator. For nearly twenty years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers in several countries around the world. He can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com

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