I – The Importance of Competence

Former President Donald Trump gets credit for Operation Warp Speed – the U.S. government program kickstarted in May 2020 to develop, manufacture, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Remarkably, vaccines were developed by the time Trump left office. But America’s chief executive was so fixated on losing the November election that on this single, but also singular success he never took the credit he deserved.

In every other way Trump’s leadership and management of the pandemic was miserably poor. During his administration the United States, with just over 4 % of the world’s total population, had well over 20 % of the world’s total cases of COVID. And a month after Trump left office the U.S. reached the half million mark – more than 500,000 Americans dead of COVID.

Now, in the brief time since President Joe Biden took office, the situation has been reversed. From being one of the world’s poorest performers, the U.S. has transformed into one of the world’s best. Specifically, when ranked according to how many people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, the United States is doing very well. This is by no means a done deal – the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can claim the pandemic is history.

Still, here some comparisons.

  • Israel, by this measure the world’s best performing country, though a very small one, has (as of today) already vaccinated 55.8 % of its total population.
  • The U.S. has vaccinated only 17. 5 % of its total population. However, compare this number with Germany’s. In 2020 Germany managed the pandemic remarkably well. But, to date, only 5.9 % of Germans have been vaccinated. In France, the numbers are even worse. Only 5.6 % of French people have received even a single shot in the arm.

What accounts for this remarkable American turnaround? Setting aside the astonishing fact that the Biden administration is about to sign into law the largest fiscal relief bill in American history, how has it happened that the president and his team have done so well on vaccine production, and distribution in so short a time in office?  One word – competence.

Competence is the most underrated word in the leadership lexicon. Why? Two reasons. First because it is pedestrian – competence sounds tedious. Who among us wants a competent leader when we can have a heroic leader? Or an inspiring leader? Or a charismatic leader? Second, because competence sounds more in the realm of management than leadership.

I have written before about problems resulting from our constant confusing the words “leadership” and “management.” Underplaying the importance of competence is one of them. No use having a leader who is heroic or inspiring or charismatic if he or she is not, also, competent.

Leaders do not themselves have to be competent. But if they are not, they must know what they don’t know to assemble a competent team. A team that is both willing and able to carry out the leader’s promise, realize the leader’s plan, implement the leader’s policy. Absent these, please spare me the grand ambitions, the soaring rhetoric, and the false prophesy of the American dream.         

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