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The Relationship Between Competence and Authority

During the third year of my career, my senior supervisor was terminated. Suddenly, the board of directors was faced with a vacancy in the executive position, and was charged with selecting a new leader. It would take months. While I was still a young twenty-something, they asked me to serve in the interim.

I was both flattered and stunned. How could I not take the job?

Over the next several months, I learned an important lesson in leadership. It’s a reality nearly everyone faces at one point or another. For the first time in my adult life, I was swimming in the deep end of the pool, and I was in over my head. I had assumed mammoth responsibilities, and I lacked the experience leaders need to face them with poise. Over time, I watched people struggle to follow my lead. It had nothing to do with how much they liked me as a friend. It had everything to do with how much they felt they could depend on me as their leader. I wasn’t really ready for the role. I didn’t know how to describe what I faced at the time, but I do now. The simple axiom I learned was this:

Your competence should always meet or exceed your authority.

You are a leader. You are influencing your school, your organization, your team, or your family. This important axiom is one I believe every good leader practices as a rule. They know that if they violate it over the long haul, they’ll sabotage their influence. Consider this truth for a moment: if you lead a team, and your staff knows that you have far more authority than you’re competent to handle, they may be forced to respect your position, but they likely won’t truly follow you.

An Experiment in Leadership

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The Harvard Business Review recently reported a lab experiment with 294 students that were divided into small groups, and placed in an imaginary scenario. They were all stranded in a desert and told to do whatever they must to survive. Half of the teams were told to work together, but they were not instructed to choose a leader. The other half was told to select a leader to manage the team. After a short while, this second half was permitted to choose a new leader, again and again. In the end, several discoveries were made by the researchers—but I’d like to focus on just one of them here. The teams who performed the best were NOT led by confident, authoritative leaders. In other words, when a team chose a leader based purely on how much authority they displayed up front, they did not fare well at all. The teams that performed best were led by competent—although humble and even quiet—leaders. The second best performance was by teams that had no leader at all. The bottom line: students often select a leader based upon a façade of confidence, but when it becomes clear that their authority outweighs their competence, things go sour.

Confidence cannot replace competence. Titles cannot replace competence.

To be clear, I am now leading a team that includes members who each have gifts to serve in areas that I do not. I am not saying leaders must be the smartest people on their team in every area. I am simply saying that leaders must demonstrate a competence that matches the level of power they have. John Maxwell calls this the Law of Respect. People tend to follow a leader who is stronger than they are.

Image Over Substance

Unfortunately, undergrads show an alarming disregard for competence as they choose their leaders, according to the same Harvard study. At a young age, image still plays a huge role in their decision-making process; they’ve not yet learned how deceptive appearance can be. Growing up in a world of social media, it’s easy to judge merely by appearances.

Substance is something we come to appreciate over time. It’s a learned skill. Cornell University’s David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that college students who display authority tend to over-estimate their expertise, while students who actually have expertise tend to under-estimate it. They lead well because their competence actually is greater than their authority, both in perception and reality.

The lesson for both students and adults?

We must not let persuasiveness or apparent confidence trump genuine competence. The best leaders often display humility and transparency about their flaws. What’s important is to look at their track record. Never prioritize image over substance.

I distinctly remember my career taking a step forward, years after that initial lesson, when I’d been leading for almost nine years. Our department experienced growth and my productivity spoke for itself. I had earned my stripes. People listened to me. My competence had overtaken my authority. What a great feeling for any leader. I just have one question for you: What do other’s respect about you? Is it your authority or your competence?

The Relationship Between Competence and Authority