Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | A quick guide to the rise of the incompetent leader

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, the first words that come to people’s minds when thinking of US President Donald Trump are—among others—“incompetent", “leader" and “liar".

There is enough research to show that whether it is business or politics, it is always not the best who rise to the top. On the contrary, it is often the most incompetent ones that do. The rise of Trump and, more recently Boris Johnson, are just some indicators that the rise of the incompetent is not an aberration. The larger question is: How do they manage to rise to such powerful positions, and why do we become surprised and frustrated when then they do?

In his book, The 5 Levels Of Leadership, the American author, speaker and leadership guru John C. Maxwell says that the first and lowest level of leadership (Level 1) is by Position. This is followed by Permission (Level 2), Production (Level 3), People Development (Level 4) and Pinnacle (Level 5). Unfortunately, people usually see leaders and leadership only from the standpoint of Level 1. Many become leaders because they have been in the right place at the right time—by associating with people who carry along others with them on their way to the top. These leaders often demonstrate a surprising lack of knowledge, competency and the skills required to function effectively.

Public and private organizations, governments and corporations are full of Level 1 leaders. People who make it only to Level 1 may be bosses, but they are never leaders. They have subordinates, not team members. They rely on rules, regulations, policies and, most importantly, organization charts to control their people. Their people will only follow them within the stated boundaries of their authority. Position is the only level to which anyone, regardless of ability, can be appointed.

Here are a few characteristics of incompetent Level 1 leaders.

The most incompetent leaders have the highest surviving power. Since they lack knowledge, their ability to manoeuvre complex political situations through Machiavellian methods becomes their most important skill—it is their core survival skill, after all. Look how often Trump’s downfall has been written, and how he manages to survive every time! In the corporate world, too, these leaders thrive on creating confusion and spreading falsehoods, making them the masters of deceit.

Second, they thrive on mediocrity. One of the mantras of incompetent leaders is to hire people who are not only mediocre, but also demonstrate high loyalty to the leader. They hire and surround themselves with “Yes" men. It makes them look better in their own eyes and enhances their ego.

Third, they have high confidence and low self-awareness. You can often cover up your incompetence with an air of confidence. Incompetent leaders are unaware of their blind spots and are blissful in the belief that they are the best. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains the phenomenon thus: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self." You can get away by speaking loudly and confidently, even if you have no idea what you’re talking about. My friend and Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of the 2007-published best-seller, The No Asshole Rule, found that negative or unkind people, though less likeable, were perceived to be more intelligent and competent than a kinder, more competent person. Even when we know that people are not as good as they think, we are seduced by their hubris and prefer them to people who are self-aware and modest.

The key tactic of these incompetent leaders is to spread negativity about others.

The Trump administration has even coined the term “alternative facts", famously mentioned by Kellyanne Conway, a political consultant who works as a counsellor to the White House, to justify the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.

In the absence of fact-checking, many day-to-day lies find a life of their own, and naïve people are taken in by them. These negative and false stories have a way of amplifying themselves, especially in the digital world with the help of social media. The only way to survive such toxic messages from a person is to not allow the person to control you, your thoughts or the broader narrative. While the misinformation will feel unfair, trying to stay above it and trusting that other people will eventually see the truth is the only way.

The fifth characteristic of incompetent leaders is extreme insecurity. Such leaders demonstrate this on a routine basis. They rarely like to take inputs from their teams, because they feel this lets people challenge their authority. They stop explaining decisions because it gives others a chance to criticize them. They see asking for help as a sign of weakness, and rarely seek feedback. They are not open to criticism and always like to be in control. Finally, insecure leaders never develop professionals, they replace them. They use others to make themselves appear greater.

A Harvard Business Review survey reveals that 58% of people say they trust strangers more than their own boss. This is truly shocking and we should all worry about such a pervasive distrust of leadership.

What is not shocking is that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses who disguise themselves as leaders—the incompetent ones.

V.R. Ferose is senior vice president, SAP, and head of SAP Engineering Academy

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