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The Best Leaders Are Competent Leaders

In the section “A Generic Framework,” I provided an “elementary” mental model of leadership. I pushed this to a second and more detailed level of understanding in the section “Developmental Leadership Model,” which involved two complementary developmental systems: leading organizations and its precursor, leading self. In the following section, I introduce a third level of understanding of leadership. This one extends the model towards describing what an aspiring leader must do and learn in order to become a role model leader, as well as what these leaders must do to create high-performance work systems.

This third level of understanding of leadership, then, focuses on developing competence as an individual leader and as an organization of leaders.

Competence is the ability to accomplish things eficiently and effectively.

We all want our leaders to be competent if we are going to accept their inluence and direction, because if they aren't, we won't be able to learn from them. Think of a leader you have known. In your view, was this person competent? Now ask yourself how willing you were to follow the direction that person set – not whether you actually did, but whether you were motivated to do so. I am certain you will ind a positive correlation between your willingness to follow him and your opinion of his leadership competence. Unless we are certain that our leaders are competent, it doesn't really matter what other attributes they might have – we won't be motivated to follow them.

When I have asked others to deine the word “competence” for me, almost all of them have struggled. We all seem to understand what it means,
but everyone seems to have a different way of describing it: “Knows things.” “Can do things.” “Smart, not just intelligent.” “Capable.” “Gets results.”

I can agree with those words, but still they leave unanswered some of this book's core questions: What must an individual do to reach a level of competence that will cause others to follow? How can a person prepare to achieve that level of competence? And why do people actually aspire to be strong leaders in the irst place?

The more I think about the word competent, the more certain I am that this is the most important descriptor that a leader can aspire to, for it suggests so many things.

Charles Krone, who often helped us think about things at DuPont Canada, often applied a mental model that bears directly on what I'm discussing here. He told us that we need to consider every person's will, being, and function. His model described a person's entire potential to think about doing things and becoming someone different in the future. Charles was always challenging us with thoughts, words, and ideas that made us stop and think about things differently, and as a result we learned to formulate fresh ideas about the real and pressing issues we were dealing with in the company.

Krone's three words and the earlier ideas of G.I. Gurdieff (see the various writings of P.D. Ouspensky), who described ways and means for human beings to develop themselves, have helped me to clarify the word competence:

Will: Why I am motivated to prepare to do things and then to do them.

Being: How I prepare myself as a human being to do things.

Function: What I do.

Competence is an integrated set of capabilities. It cascades from will (the motivation we must have to exert our mental, emotional, social, and physical energy to carry out work), to being (the qualities that distinguish human beings from machines, which include spirit, character, and the capacity for personal growth), and inally to function (the actions we take to create value-add outputs).

So, we can say that a person who has achieved the necessary levels of will, being, and function has become competent to perform at a high level. This is a simple, elegant, three-term framework that helps us understand the elements of all human performance. It has any number of uses, but for our purposes, it serves best as a framework for thinking about an
individual's or organization's capacity to perform tasks. Some would differ, saying that we need only enhance our functional skills to become competent and proicient at high-performance tasks. It isn't so.

Let's consider an example: Currently you are a junior engineer in your department. You have been offered the position of Senior Design Engineer, and you are thinking of accepting it. You apply the will–being–function framework to help you decide. The following is one possible sampling from your analysis:

Will: Why would this new role be motivating for me? That is, which of my personal values would it satisfy? Reward? Recognition? The opportunity to learn and develop?

Being: How would I be able to carry out this role? That is, what new capabilities would I be required to learn? I would need to improve my communication skills. I would also need to gain a better understanding of the department's internal and external customers.

Function: What is the value-add of the new job? That is, what would the importance of my new role be to the company? To customers? To others?

Once you answer all the questions guided by the will–being–function model and analyse the results, you will be better positioned to decide whether you have the motivation to take the job – that is, to prepare for the role and execute it.

Sports analogies are overdone, but the will to win in organizations as diverse as hockey teams, football teams, and curling squads is well documented. Unless there is a will to win, even the most talented team can lose. Think about the Canadian men's hockey team at the 2006 Olympics, or the

U.S. men's basketball team at the 1972 Olympics. There was much controversy around both losses, but even if the U.S. basketball team had won the game by a point instead of losing by a point, it would still be an example of how low levels of will and being can cause even a much superior team in terms of function to lose.

Business leaders like to say “We have the best engineers … We have the best scientists” and so on. In practice, though, organizations tend not to differ much in the functional capabilities of their people. Where they do vary is with regard to the sum of the function, being, and will of those they employ. There are many examples in the business world of how will, being, and function are all necessary to achieve extraordinary performance. The
very best leaders and managers in business organizations know that it is virtually impossible to achieve high levels of performance solely through the functional capabilities of their people.

What is not so easy is raising the level of the organization's being, which can only be done by developing the character of its people and their collective vitality. This in turn depends on the will of those people to share personal and organizational values and to be inspired by those values – by the virtuous goals of the organization.

For many years, I have used the following framework whenever I have needed to think about my own leadership capabilities or those of others. It is how I have learned to help me decide whether people are performing up to their potential, whatever their role.

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