II – The Content of Competence

Competence can be defined as the ability to do something successfully and, additionally, efficiently. To do something successfully suggests being able to accomplish the task at hand. To do something efficiently suggests being able to accomplish the task at hand with a minimum of fuss and bother, and a maximum of certitude and speed.

To be competent is to know what you are doing. To be competent is about setting a goal, but equally it is about knowing how to reach it. To be competent is to start something and finish it in good time.

President Joe Biden has been in office for less than two months. As I wrote in my previous post, during this brief time the Biden administration has been able to accomplish two astonishing feats: first, producing and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine faster than anyone dared hope just a few weeks ago; second, passing a 1.9 trillion-dollar relief bill that the president is expected to sign this week. (The House has yet to pass the now somewhat revised Senate bill, but passage is near certain.) Two very high bars put in place – two very two very high bars cleared swiftly and efficaciously.

Does this mean that President Joe Biden is a genius? Does this mean that President Joe Biden is a heroic leader, or an inspiring leader, or a charismatic leader? No – none of the above. What it does mean is that Biden is obviously, demonstrably, a competent leader.

This is not to suggest that on every issue or every public policy he will display a similarly high level of competence. What it does suggest is that he is a leader who has the capacity to set a goal – an important goal at that – and the further capacity to ascertain how to reach it. This means that he is a leader capable of grasping how to get from point A to point B and, additionally, grasping who should navigate the route.  In sum, to be competent is to be able to 1) set a consequential goal; and 2) decide how that goal can best and fastest be reached.  

Note that the word “competence” is like the word “leadership.” It is, or it should be, value free. To say that someone is good at setting a goal and then reaching it is to say nothing whatsoever about the quality of that goal – about whether it is good or bad, worthy, or unworthy. To take an extreme example, during the years 1933-1939 Adolf Hitler was a highly competent leader. He set Nazi Germany several wide-reaching and far-ranging goals, and he was able in remarkably short order to reach them. Ergo, competence does not equal, is not tantamount to, virtuousness.  

Still, in general, competence in a leader is an asset in a leader. So long as it is paired with a modicum of intelligence and integrity, decency, and empathy, we can safely assume that leaders who are competent will do far better by their followers than leaders who are not.  

This might seem obvious. But the inconvenient truth is that competence remains rather dowdy an attribute. Even now, post President Donald Trump, we Americans should have learned our lesson. But it is not yet clear that we did.     

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