The Conscious Tolerance of Incompetence
Reflections based on the the impact that insecure leaders can have on creating corrosive cultures that breed incompetence.
With all the brouhaha that exists in organisations about valuing the most talented, competent managers who have leadership potential, what plays out in reality is often quite different.
If one examines the leadership team and their successors across organisations, it may throw some light on this conjecture. Often there are no identified successors for key positions. And if there are – how many successors are seen as equally capable, if not more capable, than their predecessors?This assumption led me to study leadership roles across select industry sectors – successors as well as their bosses and I found that many leaders indulge in identifying someone not very competent to fill their shoes. Obviously this reality is not acknowledged openly but if one digs deep into the talent pipeline or exits of some of the leaders’ direct reports, then the facts reveal their own story.
Even if they are doing the right things to be seen as progressive leaders, very often the successor they choose is more amiable, aligned with the boss and the implementor for strategic decisions. In this quest for alignment with ones vision, leaders rarely allow for strategic input in their day to day interactions with these successors. In the power games that play out in the corporate world, only one can be the boss. This often leads to a scenario where the number two is an affable yes man particularly in more traditional set ups. Or there is a good cop-bad cop agreement with the boss – where each role-plays the part they have agreed to play to manage their audience and impressions.This can play out like – “I can disagree with the boss because I have his permission to do so.”
This is much like the peeling of a rotting onion where every outer layer is a little more soiled than the inner layer. It invariably breeds incompetence. What I find more alarming though is that – this is not a blind spot. It is very often a conscious choice by the leader with his or her longevity and legacy being a priority. The justifications given could be many – the lack of an adequate talent pipeline, showing a developmental path to someone who has potential but is not quite there yet, defence of their own credibility as a leader who has actively groomed a successor…however at the heart of this alarming phenomenon is deep rooted jealousy and insecurity which is unaddressed. Perhaps in their own journey to the top, the leader has had to face tough adversaries and power play and these experiences have led to a mantra for success which does not allow for someone competent in their teams who could easily replace them.
The successor too harbours feelings of deep insecurity within and often this plays out when they move into their bosses shoes. The affable yes man or woman turns tyrant or inconsistent and is rarely looked upto by the team. As people get used to leaders they do not look upto, they often do most of the thinking and the work themselves without relying on leadership input. In a perverse way, the middle layer in these organisations often becomes a very self reliant layer. At entry levels, the new talent who join dreaming of leadership visibility often get disillusioned. In most cases they have great relationships with their managers (the middle layer) but look for recognition and visibility from the top layer. They get this for short bursts but it soon fizzles out as incompetent leaders are too used to someone else doing the work for them and this does not work with young talent who are bright but do need nurturing. I have often seen a bright young talent from a premier business school has been attached to the CEO or a functional head and is given key projects and assignments…but track them couple of years down the line and the relationship has turned sour.This new and bright person did not receive much nurturing and is frustrated and the leader starts complaining about unrealistic expectations or not much value addition. Often this bright talent who was hired to be fast tracked into leadership roles is seen as too expensive later and either leaves or become relegated to a not so meaningful role.
I am sure there are exceptions but I have not found too many in the course of my initial study which was limited in scope. Though restricted in scope so far, this study highlights alarming trends that have a corrosive effect on the organisations’ employer brand, talent retention and performance.
How do we recognise and correct this? The sanity check which comes from Human Resources needs to be more consultative in nature and to proactively identify these trends before it becomes a disease. The pitfall of becoming more business oriented is that many Human Resource’s leaders often start thinking exactly like the business leaders around them. If they could influence through their specialised expertise, backed up by business understanding and not by being more like the people around them, then the value that they add would increase exponentially. In a world where careers are short term and so is the outlook, this transformation could contribute significantly towards building the organization of the future.
The only way out is due diligence in hiring into leadership roles, creating succession depth which focuses on quality and is not a tick in the box, conscious analysis and highlighting of talent trends by leveraging technology, encouraging dissent and alternate points of view in organisations and recognising that emotions lie at the heart of most talent decisions.
If this becomes a conscious effort by influencers in organisations, then over a period of time they could create a culture which values true competence and creates a solid leadership pipeline. If not, this too shall pass….and who knows what dangers lie ahead in such corrosive cultures.