The Power of Incompetence and Powerlessness of the Competent
T. V. Rao
I always wondered if most Chairpersons, CEOs, MDs, Presidents, CXOs, CHROs really and genuinely interested in recruiting and using competent people as peers (colleagues at same level) or juniors at immediate next levels. Often good leaders are advised to be great leaders by getting team members more competent than them and when they choose employees more competent than them, the organizations really prosper. I have begun to feel that this remains mostly in theory and rare to find people like Dr. Vikram Sarabhai or Ravi Matthai or Abdul Kalam who are highly secure (emotionally) Institution Builders and always respected competence, recruited competent people and left them free to build institutions. As late Dr. Kamla Choudhry postulated Dr. Sarabhai and Matthai spotted competent people and built Institutions or centers around them.
Today it is perhaps rare to find such people and phenomena. It seems that no leader (CEO/CHRO/CXO or equivalent) would want to have more competent people around them as almost all of them be afraid of losing credit and fear of getting drowned in the glory of the competent colleagues or juniors. Only family family-owned business heads who made already a great success and achieved peak of emotional security seem to show this capability. Almost all leaders now a days want to maintain their supremacy and believe the only way to do that is by having normally less competent people around them.
I must clarify what I mean by competence- it is not necessarily domain competence but it could also mean attitudinal, emotional or style or some form of inadequacy that makes an individual more acceptable to their seniors but less impactful on juniors or others. Competency is defined as knowledge, attitudes, skills, self-concept, emotional intelligence, values, traits etc. In academic world, I know the heads of many Institutions including those of some premier Institutions who ensure that positions a of importance is held by people who are less competent or at least have one weakness or the other which gives them a good handle of control over these leaders. For example, one Director always chose a “yes person” as his Dean or Head of the Department wherever he had choice. Some others recruit competent people and make them incompetent either by over boosting of their ego to a level of dysfunctionality, or pumping too much of their vision and styles and leave little choice for the person to use his/her other competencies. A Chairman went to search all over the world for a good CEO of International repute and pumped into is head a lot of ego that made the CEO partially incompetent by becoming rigid and exercising a high ego. He in turn chose an “Yes Person” as his next level and delegated whatever suited him. Recently when a reputed Industrialist became the Chairman of an academic Institute and needed to choose a committee to assist him to rejuvenate the Institute, he chose a few members from his Board who either belonged to his fraternity or popular names and completely ignored members with domain expertise who could give him good inputs. It may not have even occurred to him that there are competent people. Normally the choice of the team member is based on one with who o feel comfortable rather than one who can contribute. That is where competence becomes powerless and incompetence becomes powerful. Remember the article that appeared in Harvard Business review on Competent jerks and Lovable fools (HBR, June 2005) The authors proposed that normally when people must choose people to help them at work, they use likeability over competence as a criterion. Many CHROs make sure that they don’t have highly competent HR Managers. or tend to choose who can surpass them as it will lead to ego clash or sharing of credit. This also explains the reason why there is no succession planning in most organizations including the PSUs and PSBs despite the need for the same being felt for the last over two decades. This is simply because of the “fear of competent overshadowing the incompetent”. So, Incompetence wins and the competence is shelved and sometimes retires unnoticed.
I would like now to turn the argument round to say that that it is not to your advantage if you are highly competent person. You should have some incompetence with you to be chosen to work with. One of the incompetencies is lack of time. There are some leaders who volunteer or get appointed as members of the Board, or Advisory Board, or Task Force, Committees etc. Once in it, they rarely attend meetings as they are very popular and busy people. These busy and popular people re normally chosen as they rarely attend meetings and happily lend their name for the final report. This is another form of incompetence preferred by leaders. The Chairman of these committees want to feel that they have a “High Powered “Committee (who never attended any meetings! For example, if you form a search Committee to find the next president of a professional body or the Director of an institution what are your criteria? First criteria is the person who should have good track record and credibility. Second criteria are the person should have domain familiarity and some domain knowledge or some experience in search for competent people. A rarely asked question is on the interest of the candidate and time he/she can spare. I have seen many committees where the report is almost written by the Chairman or Secretary and few of his cronies and the Committee is used to give an online approval. What do you consider such type of members who give their “yes” response and feel happy to be called members of the Committee? I call them also incompetent people as their competence is not available to be put to use.
When five of us worked for the HR Committee of the Ministry of Finance called as Khandelwal Committee, there were five of us members: A IT Professor from IIT and a member of Bank Board, Another Private sector bank ED, A Successful Chairman of Bank of Baroda, Chairman of another bank and Chairman of the IBA, and a HR Expert. I understand that we were carefully chose. We worked for six months visited all Nationalized banks and held detailed discussions. At one time, we divided ourselves to look at our special areas of domain competence (for example a IT specialist looked at IT issues, strategy specialist looked strategies and so on). Of course, we also had ex-officio members who may not have attend all meetings but kept them I the loop all the time by continuously circulating minutes. This one committee report that was accepted almost in toto for implementation.
Most of the time I have begun to feel that to be competent and aggressive is a disadvantage and you may be discredited as a difficult person to deal with or sometimes a person who only makes notice and may not have much to contribute. The at means your competence has made you powerless and you should have been incompetent in a way that the other members feel more secure to have you as a member. However, if you are too timid and shy and are not noticeable even if you are competent in many ways you may be kept out. If you are competent and shy you are incompetent. If you are competent and aggressive, again you are incompetent. Your competence makes you powerless. Your competence should be only to the level that makes others feel secure. The challenge is to be incompetently competent or competently incompetent? A competent jerk who is lovable? Or a Lovable fool who is competent?