When a leader is described as professionally competent, what exactly does that imply? Is it a statement that the leader knows how to do everything? Or might it mean that the leader does some things well, perhaps even extraordinarily well?
Perhaps a designation as professionally competent means something different.
Management thinker Lionel Urwick wrote over fifty years ago, “There is nothing which rots morale more quickly and more completely than… the feeling that those in authority do not know their own minds.” Incompetent leaders have innumerable opportunities to demonstrate their ineffectiveness either by doing nothing or by doing the wrong things. Incompetence erodes credibility which in turn erodes trust and loyalty. The end result is most often ugly and disruptive.
So what is professional competence?
Every successful leader has come to understand the core competencies necessary to lead complex, dynamic organizations. Good leaders must understand not just financial concepts, business strategy, and marketing, but they should also grasp the importance of written and verbal communications, employee morale and motivation, and the value of character and integrity. Competence isn’t gained by knowing how to do everything, but more in knowing what needs to be done and how to get it done.
Leadership competence develops from a combination of institutional schooling, rigorous self-development, and diverse professional experience. Building competence is therefore a gradual process, from mastering individual competencies to eventually applying and tailoring them in concert with others. Leaders continuously refine these competencies and learn to apply them to increasingly complex situations. Competencies are thus demonstrated through behaviors that can be readily seen by many others at all levels in the organization.
Leaders need to provide their employees reasons to trust and follow them. A demonstration of professional competence is an excellent beginning point.
How can a leader demonstrate such professional competence? Consider the following:
• Set an example of self-improvement. Whether in acquiring additional schooling, self-study, or merely by asking employees to give you a better understanding of a particular business process, demonstrate a sincere, serious quest for knowledge and improvement.
• Celebrate the wins. Provide your analysis on how and why the win was earned, and share the credit.
• Do a lessons-learned on the setbacks. This not only provides some important institutional memory, but also establishes a leader as unafraid to share and learn, even when the news isn’t good. And don’t be reluctant to accept the blame if warranted.
• Surround yourself with competent people. Know your strengths, but also know your weaknesses, and build the team accordingly.
• Teach, communicate, and perform at a high level. Self-explanatory, right?
Competence alone cannot guarantee a leader’s success, since there are other important traits that play into the leadership mix. But incompetence will almost assuredly result in a leader’s undoing. Professional competence—knowing what to do and how to get it done—is vital.