The Devastating Effect of Ignoring Your Leadership IncompetenciesApr 20, 2023
Welcome to Friday 411, issue #024. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll discover the danger of ignoring leadership incompetence.
(Well, today we’re sharing one doozy of a story, so you may need a little longer than 4 minutes…)
As you move through your leadership journey, you need to develop new competencies. The set of skills required for frontline sales is different from what is required when you are promoted to leader of the sales team. One of your greatest responsibilities as a leader is to grow in your competence. When a leader attempts to bury his incompetence instead of addressing it, dire consequences result for himself and his organization.Those competence issues become character issues.
Coffee Shop Conversation
A few years ago, our friend, Bryant, was in town and asked to meet us at a coffee shop. When Bryant entered, we barely recognized him. Usually a fun-loving, jovial guy, full of life and energy, he pulled the door open like it was two-ton steel, his head hung, an uncharacteristically passive but sincere greeting with hugs. We ordered and chose a table, noticing the circles under his somber eyes, his forced despairing smile. We knew Bryant's family had experienced a major life-change over the past year, but we had no idea the depth of trauma to their story. We skipped the small talk and let him jump right in.
Bryant had served fifteen faithful years doing leadership training for a nonprofit. And one morning, suddenly and inexplicably, he was informed his position had been dissolved.
Bryant was shocked by the news, but he knew he needed to recover quickly and lead his family through the transition. When he questioned his wife, Allison, and their kids about their fears over his job loss, they all told him they were terrified they would have to leave their beloved small town, Maples. Bryant's family had lived in Maples for nine generations, his forefathers having helped found it. With roots and affections dug in deep, Bryant and his family were attached, involved, and committed. He agreed that he would do whatever it took to keep them planted in their hometown.
Because of their long history in Maples, Bryant was rich with friends and family in the area. They all surrounded him, offering support and helping him think through next steps. But to everyone who knew Bryant, the answer was clear and quick. If was finally time for Bryant to work for Robby.
The Face of Maples
Robby served as City Manager, their small town's version of Mayor. An outgoing and vivacious guy, he was known for his ability to remember everyone's names and to make them feel significant. Robby could turn any dull meeting into a party, energizing the room with his humor. By the end, even the most straight-faced curmudgeon would exit in laughter. If someone in town needed motivating or convincing over an issue, Robby would have him turned around in one lunch.
Everyone loved Robby, and as a result, he had served three terms as City Manager. With no term limits in Maples, he was seeking reelection for his fourth. Robby had become the face of Maples, and the people were proud he represented them. He personified the warm and welcoming feeling that defined what Maples was all about. Robby was easy to love, which is how people could overlook his incompetencies.
Behind the facade of its leader’s dynamic personality, Maples suffered. The town had experienced a gradual decline, allowing its residents to slowly grow accustomed to the creeping changes. Though when people took the time to stop and see, evidence glared in Maples’ deteriorating streets and buildings, closing businesses, and underpaid, unappreciated employees. Few could turn a blind eye to Maples’ population leaking like rain from an ever-enlarging hole in the roof, families forced to move and find somewhere else to survive.
Every year, Robby would present an inspiring plan of action to turn things around. With his remarkable ability to excite and mobilize people with vivid imaginings of what could be, he had no trouble getting people on board. But at the slightest hiccup, or as soon as Robby got bored or overwhelmed, he dropped the vision he had once sold as “momentous” and “crucial.” He tucked it away with the others like a kids' half-finished science project under the bed.
Everybody Loves Robby
It wasn't as if the people of Maples didn't recognize this pattern. They knew Robby's leadership abilities started with quick wit and a smile and ended with a bunch of unmet promises. But this was Robby.
This was the guy that was by Mr. Ledger's side as he lost his young wife to cancer and rallied the town to see his family through such unimaginable circumstances.
This was the only guy who could bring comfort and reassurance to the students and staff of Maples Primary School when their building burnt to the ground.
This was the guy who came up with the idea of a town New Year's Eve party on Main Street, a tradition that everyone now relied on to connect and celebrate with their community.
So, the people of Maples chose to pretend they didn't see Robby's leadership inabilities and allowed him to parade around town like the naked regal in The Emperor's New Clothes.
Our friend Bryant had been providing leadership consulting to Robby pro bono. Bryant had helped Robby design an achievable action plan for the town of Maples and had set him up with methods and measurables to see his ideas through. Robby had tried for years to convince Bryant to leave his job and join him as Assistant City Manager, but at the time, Bryant was committed to the nonprofit he was with. When Bryant lost his job in May, Robby swooped in, telling Bryant he had the budget to bring him on part-time until he could create a full-time position with the new fiscal year in January.
This is where Bryant stopped his story to gather himself. He cleared his throat, took a sip of coffee, and looked down at the table. He looked back up at us with tear-stung eyes.
"I should have known," he said. "You remember my friend, Christopher?"
"Yeah," Garland responded. "You guys are like brothers."
"Well, a few years back, Robby was hiring a Director of Communications. I recommended Christopher for the job. I knew he'd be perfect for it, but selfishly, Allison and I had always dreamed of our kids growing up together. We wanted our friends with us in Maples."
Dorothy chimed in, "They moved away, didn't they? I thought I heard they don't live in Maples anymore."
Bryant hung his head. "Yeah. They moved." He cleared his throat again. "Through the years, several of Robby's employees had come to me for help. The picture they painted of what it was like to work for him was unbelievable. Nobody ever knew what Robby really wanted from them. It seemed to change all the time. Yet, if they didn't meet these invisible expectations, Robby would go ballistic. He was all about empty threats, making them think their job was on the line one minute and then joking around with them the next like nothing ever happened. He demanded they work these crazy hours—hardly a day off. It was so bad, it messed up people's lives. I mean, there were like breakdowns, people having to go to counseling and everything to recover from working with him."
"That's horrible, Bryant," Garland responded. "But we're in the leadership consulting world. We know that kind of work environment is hardly unheard of."
"I know. It's just…I put my best friend in the middle of that. I swear I didn't realize when I recommended him that it was that bad. But it gets worse."
He paused another second before continuing. "When Christopher left, he tried to tell me. He tried to help me see how bad it was. But I still couldn't see it. Even though Christopher wasn't the first employee I'd seen Robby break. I couldn't see what Christopher saw because I wasn't in it. I was still on the outside looking in. I still had this image of Robby like he was this benign, lovable goofball. You know, like he means well. Likable, a good face of the community. He had just gotten in over his head, like he needed some help."
"Is that why you offered him free consulting?" Dorothy asked.
"Yes. Right after Christopher left. That was my way of making amends. I thought if there's any good that could come from this, it was that Christopher convinced me of how badly Robby was harming his employees. I didn't want to see one more family wrecked like Christopher's had been. I had no idea my family would be next."
"But if you saw what had happened to Christopher," Dorothy asked, "Why did you think it wouldn’t happen to you?"
"Because I had it all wrong." Bryant took another second to sip his coffee, cleared his throat. "I thought it was a competence issue. I can deal with a competence issue. Y'all know that. Y'all know that's what we do. We come in. We train people. We teach leadership skills. We can handle incompetence."
"But it wasn't just a competence issue anymore. Robby was desperately attempting to cover up his incompetence, thinking he could hide it and thinking it was working, like no one could see. He was like a dog with sofa stuffing hanging out of his jowls, acting like he wasn't the one who ripped the furniture apart. He had been trying to hide his competence issues for so long, they had turned into character issues."
"Oh…" We both replied simultaneously. We understood.
Bryant had been given six months severance from his previous employer. He could afford to start with Robby part-time until the Assistant City Manager position was created in January. But accepting the position would mean a significant pay cut. So much so, Bryant's family would have to put their house on the market and downsize. This was a sacrifice they were willing to make. Anything to stay in their hometown and be given the privilege of having a hand in turning Maples around.
"How certain are you that this position will be there in January?" Bryant had asked Robby.
"100%" Robby assured him. "You've got no need for any other job search."
And Bryant believed him. Why wouldn't he? This was Robby.
The first couple months were a dream. Robby couldn't believe what Bryant was able to accomplish in such a short period of time, on such limited hours.
"I'm so glad you're here, man," Robby would tell him. "I can't wait to see what happens when we get you on board full-time!"
"Yeah, Robby. About that." Bryant would say. "I still haven't seen a contract. I'll feel much better about this whole thing once I've signed that contract."
"Don't worry about that. Contract's just a formality. You're in. I've got to present your position at the next City Commission meeting before we can put a contract together. But don't worry about that either. They vote for whatever I tell them to," he said with a wink.
And it went on like this till late fall. Until Robby asked Bryant to present a proposal for next year's strategic plan for the town of Maples. In order to forecast accurate projections, Bryant first had to track where Maples had been and present a true picture of Maples' current state.
Bryant ran into trouble right away. Phone call after phone call, no one could provide him with concrete numbers. Nobody could tell him anything about Maples's budget or population.
"Robby's not big on keeping hard track of all that," one woman offered. "He's more of an intuitive leader. And just a warning, I don't know how Robby's going to feel about you poking around."
"But he asked me to," Bryant defended.
"I don't think what you think he was asking you to do is what he was really asking you to do."
"Just be careful." The woman sighed. "I'll send you all the numbers I've got this afternoon."
"Great. I appreciate it."
But she was right. Bryant had no idea what he had just done.
When the documents popped up on his computer screen, Bryant was shocked at what he saw. He knew Maples had been in decline, but he'd underestimated how badly. He created several charts from the numbers and had the report ready for Robby by their next meeting.
"And as you can see here," Bryant pointed out, "this line indicates a clear shift about eleven years ago. Since then, the population of Maples as well as it economic health has been on a steady downturn."
Bryant looked up to see Robby's jaw tighten.
"But we knew this," Bryant encouraged. "The fact that Maples is in decline isn't a surprise to anyone. I'm just glad we're catching this now. It's not a lost cause. Now we can get a better idea of how we can turn this around."
But Robby's whole demeanor had changed. His face was cold, his voice flat.
"Where'd you get these numbers?"
"I…I thought this is what you asked me to do. This type of information should be public record. It was actually a struggle to find them. Is there a reason for that?"
Robby was silent, his brow clenched in suspicion. "No. No reason." He finally said. "You can go."
After that meeting, Robby avoided Bryant. There were no more pats on the back. No more, Hey, man, so glad you're here.
Bryant began to taste a nibble of concern.
"When is the next City Commission meeting, Robby?" Bryant would ask. "I'm still waiting on that contract."
"Don't worry about it," Robby would tell him.
And finally, after months of promises, the City Commission meeting finally happened. Bryant and Allison were sitting in their living room, having just put their kids to bed, when they got the phone call. They were surrounded by boxes, already packing up in preparation to move. The next morning, after Bryant could sign his contract, they had a meeting with a real estate agent scheduled to start the process of putting their house on the market and finding a smaller one.
"Hey, man, It's Robby."
"Hey, Robby. We've been expecting your call. How'd it go?"
"Well, it's not what we wanted, man. It's a no go. We can’t hire you."
Bryant felt like someone had just slapped him across the face with an ironing board.
"Yeah. It's not going to happen, man. Sorry about that." And the phone call was over.
Fortunately, Bryant had friends on the City Commission. He immediately dialed a number.
His friend answered. "Hey! Congratulations!"
"What do you mean 'Congratulations'? I just got off the phone with Robby. He said the Commission voted no."
"What are you talking about?" His friend responded. "It was unanimous. In fact, the overriding consensus was that hiring you had to be the topmost priority for the new fiscal year. Maples doesn't have a choice but to bring you on board. In fact, it was such a sure thing, I left early to make it to my kid's basketball game."
"Well, something happened between the time you left and the time the meeting was over."
Bryant had enough friends behind the scenes to figure it out. It had been Robby who overturned the Commission. He made the final, unilateral decision, even though the Commission had voted yes. But when Bryant confronted Robby, he would give no clear explanation. It was just the way things "had to be."
"But I don't get it," Dorothy interrupted. "Why would Robby do that to you? Why would he do that to your family? Why would he promise you a job and then insure you didn't get it?"
"I have my theories." Bryant said. "The main one being my own naivety. Robby's leadership incompetency is such common knowledge in Maples, it never crossed my mind he thought he was effectively hiding it. I thought I was being helpful, but he viewed me as a threat to revealing what he was working so hard to keep hidden. The data clearly showed that Maples's turn toward decline began when he became City Manager."
"But if his incompetence is such common knowledge, why do the people keep him in office?" Dorothy asked.
Bryant let out a short chuckle. "Because he’s Robby. He's become such a beloved figurehead of Maples, the people can't imagine it without him. And he is good to people. As long as they don't work for him. He just won his fourth term."
"I still don’t get it. You told us Robby's incompetence is clear to the whole town. Doesn't he know that everyone knows?"
"I think he puts so much effort into covering up his incompetence that he lives in terror of being confronted by it. You should have seen him when I showed him those numbers. The main person he had been hiding that hard data from was himself. He could not handle staring the indisputable truth of his own inadequacy in the face. That's also why he's so hard on his staff. He's sees their shortcomings as a reflection of his own. He exerts an enormous amount of energy keeping those weeds buried. One nasty little dandelion pokes its head out of the dirt and he becomes like a homicidal gardener. But he can't admit he's the one who's spreading the seeds."
"What about you, Bryant?" Garland asked. "What's next for you?"
Bryant teared up again. "I don't know. I spent my whole six months of severance working for Robby when I should have been looking for jobs. We're getting all our government support, unemployment. We can't afford our house. Fortunately, it sold pretty quickly. We have no choice but to leave Maples. There's nothing left for us there. My family is devastated. We have nowhere to go but to Allison's parents in Florida and keep looking for work."
He shook his head and reached for the rough recycled coffee shop napkin to wipe his nose.
Garland put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. "I am so sorry this happened to you. To Allison. To your kids. But you get to walk away from this with pride, with your head held high. You get to walk away from this with your character still intact. It sounds like Robby laid his character out on the sacrificial alter a long time ago. All because he was too scared to admit he needed to grow in his competence. Most importantly, you get to walk away. Now that you know everything you know about Robby, is he really the kind of man you want to be associated with?"
"Good. You get to walk away."
Seven years have passed since our meeting with Bryant. He and his family have had time to rebound, to work through the trauma of losing their home, their sense of place, everything and everyone they knew, of such a harsh betrayal by someone they trusted. To find new jobs and new lives that bring them fresh joy and satisfaction.
And Robby was elected to an unprecedented fifth term as City Manager. It won't be long before Maples goes the way of many of America's small towns run by small characters—forced into oblivion. All because a leader allowed his competence issues to devolve into character issues.
Leader, take a moment this week for a deep soul search. We all have incompetencies. Do you exert time and energy trying to cover yours up? If so, you’re dealing with a character issue. It’s okay to admit your shortcomings and strengthen your skills to salvage your character.
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