What Competent Leadership Looks Like

I yearn for competence. Lots of it.

Coronavirus lessons abound. Already, while we’re still in the thick of this experience. I am moved by the ingenuity and creativity of so many folks who improvise and take action to improve our collective situation. Sadly, many such acts are reactions to institutional incompetence.

So, basics. Please. COMPETENCE MATTERS.

When I go to the hospital for heart surgery, I yearn for a surgeon who knows what s/he is doing. I yearn for a surgeon who acts with a sense of urgency. I yearn for a team of nurses and specialists who work well with each other. The cliché that comes to mind – I would like to be taken care of by a well-oiled machine.

And I yearn to trust this machine’s judgment.

When the US government rolls out benefits for small-business owners and fresh unemployment benefits and the system fails on the first day – that’s leadership incompetence.

When the most affluent country in the world doesn’t provide sufficient protective equipment to safeguard its frontline healthcare workers – that’s leadership incompetence.

The US president’s leadership defects are blazingly evident. Leadership incompetence, however, is not limited to one person or one party. Think of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa earlier this year when the election results technology broke down on election night. No one had tested the new technology.

Insanity. Brazen leadership incompetence.

I’m not an anti-governmenter. I was on a phone call with a group of small-business owners from Berlin last week. Most had just applied for the German version of Covid-assistance. One got her monies approved in less than 24 hours. Everyone else in under a week. They were taken care of.


But be honest. You - and all of us with you - have at some point worked for a manager or boss where we think to ourselves who put this idiot in charge? S/he is absolutely clueless!

Likely more than one. Incompetence is an ugly thing. In times of a global pandemic, it is lethal.

With a world in turmoil and so many businesses in free-fall, let’s take a fresh look at what leadership competence is. First thing that usually comes to mind is, well, great strategic thinker and puts together the right team to execute.Agreed. But let’s go a level more basic in our thinking. This is what big-girl and big-boy leadership looks like in times of high volatility and pressure:

Makes Decisions 

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Here’s a reality check. About 15 years ago, I spent half a year working on a consulting project for McKinsey, the blue-chip corporate consulting firm. This project afforded me a singular look at McKinsey’s robust diagnostic tools. I instantly understood why they are considered the standard-bearer for analyzing organizational performance. Since then, every global Fortune 500 company I have supported as an Executive Coach, at one point or other, brought in McKinsey to conduct an organizational assessment. The McKinsey guidance, with every single one of these companies, was always the same: Make decisions faster.

True. Always true. Even more true during a global pandemic. Decide and act already. Faster.

Acts with Urgency

We do it when the house is on fire, don’t we? Make the call. Really fast. Many of us work in agencies, businesses, organizations where the phrase “we’re always putting out fires” is part of the business conversation. Yet the underlying reasons why fires keep breaking out are never fully addressed. Sure, we have lots of meetings. Yes, we may hold someone accountable. But chances are, leaders are continually taking action that does not substantially change things in the burning house. I think of old-school manufacturing companies that know they need to innovate more and faster – and yet they don’t. They just keep talking about it.

Want to change something? Bring evidence. Lots of it. Present it compellingly. Demand urgent timelines. Let me know you mean it.

Takes Ownership

Sure, you have a great team around you. Yes, you let them run with the ball. But you make it clear that in times of great pressure, you assume responsibility for all outcomes. Because you’re committed to these outcomes. You don’t blame others when things don’t work out. You take the fall. Blame me, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York famously said the moment he announced tough crisis measures in his state. It’s the moment the world took notice and began to see him as an exceptional leader.

Taking ownership also means I hold myself, and others, accountable. When New Zealand’s Health Minister’s David Clark was spotted frolicking on a beach with his family during the country’s lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern demoted him. Sure, she blamed his lack of judgment. But more importantly, Ardern held Clark accountable. With that act she fully owned her commitment to her country’s leadership measures. Words and actions aligned.

Jacinda Ardern has been widely hailed as a leader who is leading her country with clear authority in this global crisis (Erin Hughes/Forbes/New Zealand’s PM is Leading a Masterclass On Coronavirus Response/4/1020). While New Zealand is not as large as the United States or China, it does have a population of over 5 million residents. Let’s look at Ardern’s leadership behavior via our competence lens:

  • -On February 28, New Zealand confirmed its first case of coronavirus. And on March 29, the country confirmed its first -- and so far, only -- death.
  • -On March 14, Ardern announced that anyone entering the country had to self-isolate for two weeks. It was among the toughest border restrictions in the world. At the time, the country had 6 cases.
  • -On March 19, Ardern banned foreigners from entering the country. There were 28 confirmed cases. And on March 23, when Ardern announced that the country was going into lockdown, there were 102 confirmed cases -- and no deaths.

Makes decisions? Oh yeah. Acts with urgency? Oh yeah. Takes ownership? The example of her Health Minister tells the tale.

Decisions. Urgency. Ownership.

New Zealand’s Plan A is not simply the containment of a virus. It’s full eradication.

This goal isn’t even on the table anywhere else in the world.

That’s what competent leadership looks like.

Related: Want to Lead in a Crisis? Better Have Some Credibility