Competence Alone Will Not Make You a Great Leader – Here is What Will

If you would indulge me, I would like to begin this post with a short exercise. It won’t take long. You will need a blank sheet of paper to write a few things down. Divide the paper lengthwise by drawing a line down the center of the page so that you have two columns. Label the column on the left GOOD BOSS. Now bring to mind the best boss (or teacher or coach) that you have ever worked with. Picture her/him in your mind and recall a story or two from your time working with them. Once you have this firmly in mind, consider the following questions: What were the characteristics of this leader that made you bring her/him to mind? What behaviors did this leader exhibit that led you to consider him/her one of the best leaders you’ve worked for? How did this leader make you feel? Please jot down your thoughts in the left-hand column. 

Next, label the right-hand column BAD BOSS, and ask yourself the same questions, then write down your answers. Now, compare the lists. What do you notice about these two different leaders? 

For one thing, you may notice that most of the factors you listed have to do with the leader’s character or lack thereof. You may also notice that your list does not contain items with a technical focus and that good bosses often focus on others while bad bosses tend to be excessively self-focused. Good bosses often show up as trustworthy, visionary, secure, tough, challenging, caring, compassionate, and inspiring. They connect deeply with people and challenge them to be and do their best. Bad bosses, on the other hand, are seen as untrustworthy and mistrusting, short-sighted, insecure, bullying, defensive, uncaring, and uninspiring. They over-control and under-deliver, damaging people and relationships in the process. One way we describe the difference is that good bosses often lead from a place of inner stature, while bad bosses use (and abuse) only their status to lead. Without inner stature, bad bosses lack the ability to inspire trust and excellence in those that follow them. In contrast, good bosses balance the use of their inner stature with their external status in a way that inspires trust and superior performance.  

I have done this exercise with various groups across the world—from engineers in Germany and law enforcement officers in the United States to high school students in China and bankers in South Africa —the answers from each iteration are virtually identical. 

We do this exercise to make an important point: most people know exactly what good leadership looks like as well as what it feels like. However, we often don’t trust our own experience and instead rely on a faulty assumption that leadership excellence is primarily about technical knowledge or simply working harder and faster. These ideas are both common and understandable as most leaders were exceptional individual contributors; that is why they were often promoted. However, to lead effectively, they will need to shift this perspective. 

There are other points to consider when examining the results of this exercise. For example, it is rare for workshop participants to characterize good bosses simply as “nice”, even when probed. Rather, good bosses are often described as demanding, while also fair and supportive; results-driven while also caring about people. Interestingly, while bad bosses are often described as incompetent, the opposite is not true—competency is rarely listed as a characteristic of good bosses. Why might this be the case?

For good bosses, managerial competency is often a given: it is the table stakes necessary to play in the game. These bosses know how to analyze data, make decisions, run meetings, think strategically, set goals, etc. If they do not have these competencies, good bosses have both the humility and the security to hire and trust others to fill in their own gaps. 

Yet, companies spend valuable resources building and measuring lists of these types of competencies. In our experience, these lists are not particularly different across different companies or economic sectors. Further, because these common competencies stress sameness and standardization among leaders, organizations inadvertently diminish the diversity, differentiation, and uniqueness that individual leaders bring. This strategic error is a lost opportunity for organizations thinking about distinction, differentiation, and competitive advantage. As one of our clients once remarked, “We hire really good people and then tell them what to do.”

In order to leverage the diversity of thought and uniqueness of experience of individual leaders, CHROs, and CTOs should spend more time supporting leaders to develop their inner character. As previously discussed, the difference between good bosses and bad bosses is not one of competence only—it is, more importantly, one of character. For us here at Lapin International, leadership character is not a set of skills or competencies. Rather, it is a way of being, an inner stance of how we see and make sense of the world and what we value. As illustrated through the Good Boss/Bad Boss exercise, when leaders develop their inner character, their actions are then experienced more positively by those they lead, giving them a greater capacity to influence others and inspire them. 

For example, let us consider humility, one of eight characteristics of great leaders as described in Lead by Greatness. Humility consistently shows up on the Good Boss list yet is rarely discussed in leadership development programs. We believe this is because humility is often wrongly associated with a sense of unworthiness, something no leader can afford. Unworthiness is better thought of as an excess of humility. This excess can be as problematic for leaders as a deficit of humility, which is experienced by others as arrogance. For leaders, the inner stance of humility is one that strikes a balance between too much humility and too little. It allows leaders to balance their own needs with the needs of others and helps them see that they are but a part of a larger whole. It is also humility that allows a leader to balance their use of power--their status--their inner stature, appropriately using the power of leadership but not over-relying on it to get things done.

If leaders develop and balance their inner stance of humility, the outer actions demonstrating humility, such as genuine dialogue, curious questioning, and deep listening, are experienced by others as authentic and sincere. However, a leader that is trained only in the skills of dialogue, understanding, and listening without developing the inner stance of humility to support these skills, will be experienced as inauthentic and disingenuous. This is because without the inner development, the skills are merely a veneer and could be covering either arrogance or insecurity. This will then undermine, rather than build, trust—another key factor in leadership and organizational success. Genuinely curious questions and deep, generative listening are more than just skills or competencies; they must come from a well-developed inner place. 

This type of inner development and transformation demands that we rethink the way we currently develop and promote leaders within organizations. The business environment of today, and the challenges that leaders will face tomorrow, are vastly different from those of the past. We need to be as innovative in the ways we develop leaders as we expect them to be in the results they will drive. Despite the challenges inherent in developing leadership character, it is highly rewarding for both the individual leader and the organization he/she serves, for it is only leaders of great character who can inspire others to greatness. Whether you are a leader of people or one responsible for developing leaders, be sure that when others are asked about you in the future, you will be placed in the Good Boss column. 

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