REPOST: Character vs. Competence

by Ron Potter
A Note From the Editor:
As we recently mentioned, we are reposting popular blog posts while Ron is recovering from some health issues.

Tyranny of Competence

Bob Quinn in his book Deep Change introduced us to the concept of the “Tyranny of Competence.” This is a person that is so good at the skills of their job, leaders will tend to overlook their other flaws in character.  They assume the character flaws would never cause enough negative issues to overcome the positive impact of being really good at their job.

Don’t ever think that.  The destruction caused by lack of character is always greater than the competency provided.

Steven Covey gave us the image of leadership, being equal parts character and competency. You can be the most competent person ever, but without good character, you’ll never become a great leader.  Conversely, you can be a person of utmost integrity and character, but without being competent at what you do, you’re no longer trustworthy and therefore will never make a trusted leader.

I’ve always been a little surprised at the lack of visibility around this issue. I’ve often thought that maybe I’m more tuned into the destructive aftermath of this character issue than the executives I work with.  And quite honestly, the measurement systems of our corporate environments tend to be more competency based than character based.

Rock Stars of Competency

Then one morning I experienced a little incident that added some clarity.  Because of a heart operation and subsequent complicating factors, I had been living in a hospital environment. Beyond dealing with my own personal health issues, the thing that occupied me the most was observing the culture of an operating hospital from a patient’s (customer’s) point of view.

Now, a hospital is certainly competency-based. Without a doubt, I want the most competent surgeon handling my heart so I can get healthy. But it’s amazing that even at this “rock star” level of medicine, how much of a difference character makes. From the patient’s point of view, the doctors I consider the best are the ones that treat me as a human being. I have been very blessed with great doctors but what’s even more interesting is how the hospital staff reacts to these surgeons.

The high character surgeon treats the staff with respect and relates to them as human beings, even as simple as using their name. The entire staff is very eager to provide to the patient whatever the doctor thinks necessary for the health and well-being of the patient. However, when the doctor forgets to exhibit that good character to the staff, the patient actually suffers. The staff goes back to a checklist approach.  It’s clear that the overall care of the patient diminishes when the providing doctor doesn’t demonstrate good character, but assumes it is only great competency that gets the job done.

Character Based Environments

Below the doctors are the nurses and the rest of the caring staff. Down here, it’s character that makes the difference. Without exception, these nurses and “techs” (one nurse and one tech assigned to each patient) are there to help you get well. There are still competence issues of taking “values”—pressure, temperature, weight, etc. and administering meds—but for the most part they mainly want to know how you’re doing and what they can do to make your stay more comfortable. The most precious commodity is sleep. And while the timing of the system conspires against you, many of the nurses and techs will delay almost anything if they think it will allow you to sleep just a little bit longer. Except Alex!

Don’t Be Like Alex

Alex is a young, energetic tech who was new to me until one morning. At 5:00 a.m. (one of the few times during the day that I could actually fall into a deep sleep) Alex bounded into my room, turned on the lights, and asked if he could check my weight. My answer was, “No!” Undaunted, Alex wheels in the scale (light still on) and offers to help me out of bed. It’s obvious he’s not going to leave so I slowly bring myself to consciousness, drag myself out of bed, stand on the scale, and satisfy Alex that he’s done his job. He even encourages me to get some sleep as he departs with his poundage figures in hand.

My reaction to Alex’s overall performance?

Competent? Yes.

Showed character? No.

Overall, rude, obtrusive, failure as a tech.

In competency based environments, lack of character is always destructive but may be under the radar.  In character based environments, lack of character is seen as complete failure.

The message in all of this is balance, balance, balance.

Regardless of which aspect is more valued in each environment the best leaders, the most cherished and valued people are the ones with both great competencies and the same time exhibit the greatest of character. They are respectful and treat others with great dignity.

If you yearn for success, be the best you can be and at the same time, care and respect those around you for who they are.

This post was originally posted here on September 10, 2015.

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1 comment

Richard Hill July 1, 2023 - 4:36 pm

Hi Ron, I hope you are starting to feel better. If you wish, please tell me how old you are. I will be 92 in two weeks and some days I have a tough time just getting around…walking, doing a few odds and ends. Gets a bit difficult but I am doing my best and my wife is helping me.
Well, again I hope you are on the road to recovery and I wish you the best.
Your friend and colleague,
Rich Hill


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