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The Quest for Competence

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This past Saturday, while watching the World Cup match between the United States and England, a friend and I chatted about the state of U.S. politics. "Is it getting worse," Brad posited, "or are we more aware of what is going on?"


We decided it was a combination of factors: Currently in our late 30s and early 40s, we pay more taxes and are more aware of the impact of politics on our lives than we used to be. Additionally, as professionals with 20 years of work experience, we gravitate toward competence in business and wonder about the seeming lack of competence in politics.

In a study cited in their new book, "The Leadership Challenge" (Pfeiffer, 2010), authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner note that honesty is the top desired leadership trait. If leaders are not honest, you don't know whether they will do what they say, as they might be lying to you.

The second trait is the ability to inspire. This allows leaders to gather people together to accomplish a mission, to forge ahead and work hard toward a goal.

The third trait is competence -- the ability to get done those things they want done.

Rush Limbaugh

Brad and I discussed the survey. "I've been inspired," he said as he shook his head. "I don't need inspiration. I just want competence."

Brad's No. 1 trait desired from politicians: competence.

I was not so sure. I love a rousing speech.

In a separate study by psychologists Susan Fiske and Amy Cuddy of Princeton, competence and warmth attributes were researched. The study noted that people first ascertain what someone's intentions are toward them. Does the other person want to help us or hurt us? This determines whether we view them as warm (help us) or cold (hurt us). Secondly, are they able to carry out those intentions (are they competent)?


How people score on this two-dimensional model influences how we view them: We feel paternalistic toward those who are warm and incompetent; we feel at risk from or envious of those who are cold and competent; we feel contempt toward those who are cold and incompetent; we admire those who are warm and competent.

This last quadrant is the area in which leaders should operate.

President Obama, the elected leader of our nation, is being challenged by the Gulf oil spill.

In last week's "Today" show interview, host Matt Lauer asked Obama, "Have you spoken directly to Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP?"

Obama said, "I have not spoken to him directly. Here's my reason: My experience is when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he's going to say all the right things to me. I'm not interested in words. I'm interested in actions."

It seems odd that Obama would agree to talk to our foreign enemies without preconditions, but did not talk to the CEO of BP for almost two months. However, his interest in "actions" resonates. Actions provide support for competence.

In Tuesday night's address from the Oval Office, Obama turned to war language: "the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores"; "we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes"; "lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward."

His battle plan talk (which implies competency) rapidly transitioned to aspirations (think inspiration): "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize control of our own destiny."


One thing we know from the election: Obama is great at delivering inspirational speeches. Competence at administering is much harder to achieve.

Instead of a competent Obama administration, we have had a competent Obama Inspiration.

At the close of his speech, Obama referred to "The Blessing of the Fleet," an annual event at the opening of the shrimping season along the Gulf Coast. He once again used inspiring language: "What sees us through -- what has always seen us through -- is our strength, our resilience and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it."

Inspirational words? Yes.

At this juncture, these inspiring words need to be fortified with underlying competence.

It remains to be seen whether this administration has the administrative competence to match its ability to inspire.

As the U.S.-England World Cup game ended in a draw, I realized I agreed with Brad's assessment.

I'm done with inspiration and am on a quest for competence.

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