Home Education & Learning Unfit to Lead? A Universal Standard for Leader Competence

Unfit to Lead? A Universal Standard for Leader Competence

Published: Last updated:
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Even those of us without legal or psychiatric expertise have a right to assess our leaders’ competence. It seems that more people than usual are asking whether President Trump is unfit for command – they are saying, definitively, no he is not, or yes he is.

Let’s leave the law to the lawyers and the psychiatric assessments to the psychiatrists. Instead, let’s work with some fundamentals that we all can use to appraise the competence of any leader in any sector.

Thinking productively about leader competence works best when we avoid both hero worship and hateful demonising. It also helps that we do not need to decipher mental capacity or personality traits. The key is to look for observable behaviours that give leaders the best chance to deliver the best results.   

Not just any results, but results that benefit ‘followers’ – meaning constituents, in the case of elected officials. Performance that benefits stakeholders is the essential bottom line; real leadership concerns other people and is not just about personal consequences for leaders themselves.

How should leaders lead?

With the performance criterion in mind, how should leaders lead? Based on hordes of studies, the useful but unsatisfying answer is that it depends. The effects of a particular leader style depend on context (for example, a business turnaround vs a start-up), the nature of the task (team vs individual, or output volume vs creativity), and followers (high school students or experienced professionals). Or running a family business vs serving as a public official. Or heading a presidential campaign vs leading a great democracy.

But it’s hard to embrace ‘it depends’ as an answer. We tend to assess leaders and candidates using just one or two criteria. We base votes on political party, and perhaps charisma. Sometimes we want empathy or authenticity. Some give high priority to character and ethics, while others care less.

In reality, though, great leadership is never as simple as a few particular attributes. Even character and ethics reside subjectively in the eye of the beholder, as recent presidential actions and reactions make clear. Moreover, empathy and authenticity alone aren’t up to the complex job of leading successfully.

Sheer competence             

If there exists a most-important key to leadership, it is sheer competence. Not a mental health assessment or a personality trait, or a single attribute like IQ or EQ, but behaving in ways most likely to produce good performance. I’m talking about plain-old fundamental competence, not the long lists of popular competencies that many companies develop or work with. 

Competence as key to leadership doesn’t seem like a stunning revelation. But, except for President Trump – recently and often with a focus on psychological issues – we don’t think or talk much about what leader competence really is.

Competent leadership solves problems and captures opportunities that improve performance. This does not mean the boss alone should do those things. It does mean that they should get done on the leader’s watch, via countless individual and collaborative efforts.

Leading with competence requires thinking strategically about performance challenges, optimally applying human capital to those challenges, and using problem-solving processes that are most likely to succeed

Problem-solving in real-time

Whether a problem is actually solved, or an opportunity is really captured, is a judgement best made after time passes and key results come in. But the most significant performance challenges typically develop, unfold, and resolve (or not) over long periods. How can we assess leadership in real-time, before we know results and when things are highly uncertain?

Here’s the answer: by attending vigilantly to problem-solving processes.  I’ve written about this elsewhere in greater detail, and specifically regarding mistakes made with the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. At the most basic level, leader competence in the problem-solving sense requires:

  • Spotting problems and opportunities. Competent leaders pay attention, understand what’s happening, and face reality. Incompetence includes not seeking information, operating in a bubble, and dismissing facts and others’ concerns.
  • Tackling the important ones head-on. This is probably where our assessments of competence are most subjective: leaders impress us when they take effective action on issues important to us, and disappoint when they take destructive action or don’t act at all when we want them to.
  • Finding the best solutions. Competent leaders consider a variety of solutions and anticipate their likely impact: their upsides and risks, including downstream and unintended consequences. Incompetence shows itself in simplistic ideas and accepting or rejecting solutions based on uninformed bias rather than evidence and thorough evaluation.
  • Following through. Competent leaders don’t just make decisions (for instance, sign executive orders). They plan how to implement their solutions, and execute well. They stay informed to make sure that good ideas reach fruition. 
  • Monitoring results and adjusting as needed. This is more the exception than the rule. Incompetence includes not carefully assessing progress, not learning from mistakes, and failing to adopt better strategies and tactics when the original ones prove inadequate.

Leading competently means applying such processes on a regular basis, continually addressing new problems and opportunities. Importantly, the best leaders also leverage character strengths to ensure that 1) ethics is a high priority, and 2) solutions will provide more benefit for more people. 

The most competent leaders

Sometimes, when appropriate, competent leaders do those things alone. But someone consistently operating solo in a leadership position, no matter how lofty the title, cannot lead effectively for long. Competent leaders engage other people to capitalise on their relevant brainpower, perspectives, solutions, and consequent commitment to implementing well.

To assess political leaders, choose one or more problems that you care about: perhaps healthcare, education, taxes, immigration, the judiciary, security, climate change, social strife, international relations, or jobs.  Then, consider how competently your elected officials are acting on it. How well do they engage multiple stakeholders, acquire useful input, develop ‘across-the-aisle’ commitment, apply the best long-term solutions, and achieve results benefitting more than just a few?

You can apply this lens to assess the (in)competence of anyone in a leadership position. When viewed as problem-solving activities and results, leader competence is not a fixed trait that a person either does or does not possess. It is a process that anyone can learn and apply, to great effect.


An earlier version of this appeared in Psychology Today.


Image credit: Freepik

Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.


© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd