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Maybe you think of yourself as competent, or maybe you don’t.


I tend to say things to myself like:

  • I can do this.
  • I could do that.
  • I could do that, too, if I spent some time learning how.
  • I understand how this works, even if I’m sketchy on the details.
  • I’m not doing this very well in this area because of this, this and this.
  • I could do this thing amazingly if I had these resources, and this kind of teammate, and I didn’t also have to do this, this and this at the same time.

These are mostly fairly healthy attitudes. I can do quite a few things well, and this way of thinking makes it more likely that I’ll fulfill my own prophecies by trying things out and learning new skills, making me feel… more competent.

Factors “beyond my control”

But notice that some of these “competencies” are in things that I’m not doing well “at the moment” – or maybe not doing at all. Am I actually competent?

What about when the environment renders you incompetent? Or who’s responsible when bad management renders a previously competent person (you) ineffective? It seems reasonable to blame the manager… but if things show no signs of improving, every month that passes makes it more your fault.

Competence and leaders

This question of responsibility becomes sharper still when you’re the manager – and especially if you’re leading things:

  • It’s not your job to be competent at doing the different functions of your organisation, but rather to make sure that the different functions happen well.
  • It’s not your job to be competent in the right theoretical circumstances, but rather to shape the environment – to find the people, money, time, resources necessary – so that you and your team are able to perform well now.
  • It wasn’t your job to hire these people – but it’s your job to help them to develop or to move on.

It’s a high bar, and success is a moving target. We need to be kind to ourselves, recognise our successes, and remember that if it was easy, we probably wouldn’t be necessary.

But until you can make the thing happen consistently and well, it’s most helpful to regarding yourself as “currently-incompetent-learning-to-do-it-better-and-actively-looking-for-help”.

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