Qualities of a superlative leader #4 – Competence, part 1

“Leadership means that a group, large or small, is willing to entrust authority to a person who has shown judgment, wisdom, personal appeal, and proven competence.” – Walt Disney.”

Walt Disney was born December 5, 1901 at 2156 North Tripp Avenue in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. His family moved around some while he was growing up, moving to Missouri, the Kansas City, back to Chicago and then back to Kansas City once more before finally moving permanently to California in 1923.

There he and his brother Roy pooled their money and set up a cartoon studio. The first Disney Brothers studio was located on Hyperion Avenue in the Silverlake district where it remained until 1939. Over the next several decades he and his staff would create some of the world’s most iconic characters and found an entirely brand new industry when Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, on Sunday, July 17, 1955.

Within the 6 plus decades of his life, Walt Disney won 22 Academy Awards from 59 nominations. Four of them came in one year. No one has ever won more. He also won seven Emmy awards and founded Disneyland, Walt Disney World in Florida, Tokyo Disney, Disney Paris, and Hong Kong Disney.

His ability to innovate and inspire has captivated the attention of millions for his entertainment products and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands in business for his competence as a leader. His Imagineers (what he called the engineers who came up ideas and discovered the means to execute them) have given rise to new methods of developing products and spawned a consulting practice that teaches companies how to create a Disney-like customer service environment. Disney is indeed the incarnation of a highly competent leader.

When I was working with the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States, I had the privilege of meeting a good many Navajo leaders. In the course of my work there I discovered that there is no word in the Navajo language that translates “leader.” Instead, their closest approximation means orator, one who speaks eloquently and persuasively.

Indeed, the powers of persuasion are critical to effective leadership and are often equated with leadership itself. But as a quality of the superlative leader, one does not equal the other. (If you are just joining this series now you will be better served to go back and read the very first installment here.)

In the southwest, there is an expression that illustrates the difference. When someone talks better than they perform, they say “He is all hat and no cattle.” He gives the appearance of something that he is not.

Walt Disney was not one of those types.  How wore many hats and had the cattle to prove all of them.

According to the BusinessDictionary.com, Competence is “a cluster of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, and skills that enable a person (or an organization) to act effectively in a job or situation.”

It’s the package that counts. Competence is a combination of components, a cluster as the Business Dictionary puts it. The sum of the parts add up to a whole leader. A superlative leader knows more and can do more than the average person.

Competence has four general pieces:

  1. Knowledge that has been imparted through experience. I wrote about this earlier so I won’t repeat it here.
  2. Knowledge through education. Lee Iaccoca, the man responsible for Ford’s Mustang and for saving the Chrysler corporation advocated a strong liberal arts education. Specialized training in your field and in the field of leadership and management adds to your considerable bank of knowledge.
  3. Acquired and Inherent skills. Superlative leaders have something within upon which to build. They are intelligent, insightful, and skillful. Leadership is about getting things done and you can’t get something done if you don’t know how to do things.
  4. Motivation and attitude. Competent people attack life. They don’t fight with it. They overcome but they don’t continually wage war. They are not blind to problems and obstacles but they see a much bigger picture.

One may be competent in some situations and not so competent in others. No one is competent in everything. No one. Granted, some people have broader ranges of competence but no one is good at everything or in every circumstance. Superlative leaders seem to have greater ranges of competence and some much greater than others.

One may be incompetent in a particular job at one point in life but competent at another point. Some lose competence over time if the requirements of the job change or if they change. The converse is true as well. Most of us grow into positions of greater responsibility.

Decide whether one’s incompetencies are disqualifying or merely disabling. You can get too introspective and, after a few hard knocks, judge yourself too harshly. The opposite is true, of course, and there are those whose overconfidence is in itself a disabling trait. Ask General George Custer how it worked out for him. Some roles are just not for you…but others are a perfect fit. How to know? Generally speaking you like to do what you’re good at and are stressed to do something you aren’t good at, assuming of course you have had proper training. If you are in a position to evaluate someone, you have the unhappy and uncertain task of identifying whether someone is simply unfit for leadership or simply a bad fit for the particular role in question.

Know the repercussions of overpromising and underperforming. Politicians do this all the time but those eager for advancement can too. Make sure you have cattle to justify the size of your hat.

Know the rewards of under-promising and over-performing. Lowering expectations can work to your advantage. All in all it’s best to let your record of work and your achievements speak for themselves. Better to overproduce than to fall short.

Comparisons are a waste of time. If you’re a MASH fan, you might remember the episode where a young doctor came to the 4077th to brief the staff on new procedures. The lecturer’s age and youthful look immediately irked Dr. Winchester who considered himself the best of the best. When the young doctor helped out in the operating room, his skill and poise only deepened the resentment. The good Doctor Winchester was powerless in the face of such a revealing comparison. You might as well face it now that someone somewhere is more competent than you. But you are more competent than others. An emotionally secure person need not prove himself to himself. S/He need only fulfill the responsibilities and requirements of his or her office to the satisfaction of the constituents – bosses, subordinates, customers, stockholders, or donors.

On Thursday I will begin an examination of the types of competencies mastered by superlative leaders…and I won’t complete the list with one article. Much more to come. See you later this week.

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