06 July 2015

The Conscious-Incompetent

A conscious-incompetent is a person who is aware of his or her own shortcomings. To those who think this can only be negative, pull up a chair, because conscious incompetence does not have to be a bad thing.

To qualify my observation, I have my experiences. First, I was prior enlisted (4 years) which doesn’t always equal better. However, I made mistakes and learned a lot, so it was a good thing. Second, I spent most of time as a LT (O1 and O2) filling CPT (O3) billets. Third, I pinned CPT in January of 2007 and then left Active Duty where I joined the National Guard. This prolonged my time as a CPT already, and then I transferred to another unit where promotion rates are slow. That said, I have been a CPT for 8 years and served in CPT billets for 10 years. Those years combined with experience as a SGI and service in 7 different brigades and 8 different divisions gives me a large depth of experience.

I began as an active critic of incompetence, but over time I have shifted to be a passive critic of arrogance. I will assume everyone understands that both (incompetence and arrogance) occur at different degrees. I have met great leaders who were incompetent, but what distinguished them from the not-so-great was their character and disposition towards others. There are ways that shortcomings in competence can be overcome.

First, I have seen some leaders find themselves in situations where they did not have sufficient understanding for whatever reason. The path to success came through admitting to the right audience that they didn’t know what that needed or should know. The way in which obstacles and barriers were overcome was by the leader seeking education through self-development and enlisting advisers.

Second, I have seen some leaders find themselves situations where they realized, due to limitations of time or intellectual capacity, they would never understand. The path to success came through the leader leveraging those who could understand to advise and inform his or her decisions. Despite these leaders’ “incompetence” they actually demonstrated their ability (competence) in leading an organization by leveraging the people they lead.

Learning (self and organizational development) and leading (influencing and leveraging others) are things we look for from all leaders. These basic skills paired with humility can help an incompetent leader attain competency through Mission Command. From these leaders, I learned the value of humility. Humility is one those things we discussed with students in the Captain’s Career Course. Great leaders may have great confidence but their confidence is only justified if it is obtained by starting a process with humility. The reason conscious-competent leaders sometimes fail is because they may be micromanaging and/or they have shut down the internal feedback and initiative desired in great organizations. If a conscious-competent leader misses the opportunity to learn from others due to arrogance, it can cause a leader to never realize his or her ignorance. Lack of insight can increase chances of a mistake, and lack of feedback can result in missing opportunities to make a course correction on the way to disaster.

A historical example: We can’t be sure about what occurred during conversations between General Lee and General Longstreet at Gettysburg. What we know is General Longstreet’s advice against General Lee’s plan to attack up the middle of the Union’s line. General Lee’s plan involved General Longstreet marching his men across a long, open field and up a hill to a well-defended Union line. Many theorized that the arrogance of the conscious and very competent General Lee caused him to disregard very good advice.

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