Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Posted: August 6, 2015 in Leadership
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I’m working on my next book, with the working title of Follow Me! Mastering the Art of Leadership… from the Battlefield to the Boardroom. One thing I consistently reinforce is that leadership can be learned and developed and that it is competence-based. In fact, competence is the heart of leadership.

People want to follow competent leaders. Competence, integrity, and accountability generate credibility with superiors, employees, peers, and the public. Credibility in turn generates respect, which then leads directly to leadership effectiveness.

Competence is the mix of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that is required to be an effective and efficient leader. Knowledge consists of theoretical concepts and technical data. It includes the information required to analyze situations, assess people, make decisions and plans, and understand when, how, and why to act in a timely, efficient, appropriate, and effective manner to achieve individual and organizational goals.

Skills are applied knowledge, the capacity to act according to learning and experience. Whereas knowledge is essentially theoretical in nature, skills can only be acquired through diligent and consistent practice until they become second nature. You can study the psychological aspects of leadership in scientific literature and books, but it’s only when you can translate that to action on the ground with real people that you can truly say you’re a skilled leader.

The technique of supplying corrective feedback illustrates well the relationship between theoretical understanding and practical application. Psychology informs us that people are more open to criticism when it’s constructive and couched in positive, growth-oriented terms. That’s the knowledge part. One of the corresponding techniques on the practical side of the equation is to provide feedback through the “sandwich” technique. You start by giving an overall positive assessment of the subject’s progress and performance. Then you point out the two or three areas where he or she needs to improve. You then assure them of your availability to provide timely advice and the training or coaching to improve. Finally, you reiterate the overall positive assessment, and gain their commitment to specific and measurable improvement goals.

The third component of competence is attitude, which includes all of the dispositions, traits, and beliefs that are required of a leader. At first, an individual must want to take the lead, to be out in front, take risks, and assume responsibility. After that, he must have the right mindset to continue leading, to be accountable, and to have the integrity to influence and inspire others. At one point during his presidency, Barack Obama was criticized from all quarters for saying he preferred to “lead from behind.” Most observers sensed, correctly, that this is an oxymoron. To lead is, by definition, to be out in front, taking hits and risking your reputation. You can’t do that with a wall of people in front of you to protect you from the harshness of reality.

By the same token, leaders must be willing to accept a certain amount of conflict and questioning from their advisors. Otherwise they risk getting lost in a miasma of sycophancy and adulation that cuts them off from reality. Abraham Lincoln intentionally forged a cabinet that was, as aptly named by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a “team of rivals.” He wasn’t afraid to accept various points of view and challenges to his thinking and plans. As a result, his policies were stronger and bolder, and he is recognized as one of the greatest political leaders in American—and world—history.

Leaders must excel in all three forms of competence, and these must be in balance as much as possible. Someone who has knowledge and the right attitude to be a leader, but who doesn’t know how to lead, influence, and inspire others, is either ineffectual as a leader, unqualified, or simply inexperienced.

Someone who has knowledge and skills, but lacks the right attitudes and dispositions to lead with intention, integrity, and a sense of responsibility will often display a lack of accountability, unpredictability, moodiness, as well as egotistical, vainglorious behavior.

Someone who has the skills and the right attitudes will know how to influence and inspire others, but will lack the wisdom to apply these abilities in a timely, effective, and ethical manner. Such leaders can often be highly charismatic—think of Adolf Hitler … or maybe that crazy boss you once worked for—but they can be extremely dangerous and even destructive.

12 techniques to boost your leadership competence

  1. Set clear overarching objectives for you and your team.
  2. Analyze the internal and external environments, as well as the evolving situation.
  3. Consider multiple scenarios and courses of action before making a decision.
  4. Formulate a clear and direct mission and communicate it openly to your followers.
  5. Surround yourself with the right people and involve them as much as possible in analysis and decision-making.
  6. Ask for advice from followers, peers, and superiors and consider multiple perspectives in your analysis and decision-making.
  7. Break your plans into actionable steps and tasks and assign these to specific individuals on the basis of their competencies, talents, and developmental requirements.
  8. Ensure your subordinates have the resources needed to do their respective jobs and support them in their tasks.
  9. Communicate your plans and intentions clearly and directly.
  10. Question your followers frequently to know what they know, understand, and believe.
  11. Designate priorities and the focus of effort for all your plans and intentions.
  12. Follow up to ensure effective and efficient implementation of your guidance and direction.

I’m never too busy to discuss your needs or those of anyone else you feel may benefit from meeting or talking to me. So feel free to contact me at any time!

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

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