The Myth of Competence

The Myth of Competence

December 25, 2017—Some years ago I did a presentation titled “The Myth of Competence.” It developed out of my observation that so many leaders live under a crushing load of performance-anxiety and a frame of mind I called the myth of competence. Here’s the working definition of the concept:

The Myth of Competence is the attitude, fed by chronic anxiety, that leads to the operational belief that personal self-worth, relevance, and meaning reside in the external definitions and assurances of being competent in everything one does. It manifests itself in symptomology of systemic anxiety and can result in burn-out and depression.

The Myth of Competence leads to a performance-based leadership function that is susceptible to systemic pathologies. It is externally-focused and influenced by performance- or image-oriented contexts.

Clergy leaders can preach about the importance of a balanced focus on being vs. doing and about a life of faith that is grace-filled rather than works-oriented. But many still cannot avoid being burdened by performance anxiety and crushed under a need to feel and be perceived as highly competent. Sadly, too many seem unable to embrace the gift of grace they extend to others.

The paradox of focusing on competence is that the more one focuses on performance the less effective one becomes as a leader. Here are some reasons why living the myth of competence renders the leader ineffective:

Rather than resulting in confidence it results in insecurity. An overfocus on performance leaves the leader with the anxiety, as one pastor put it, “Having to hit a home run every time I preach.”

Rather than feeling liberating it feels oppressive. Because competence is measured by external expectations from others the leader never functions out of self, always from pseudo self, and always directed by others’ values, whims and predilections.

Rather than enabling vision it fosters myopia. Focusing on performance means that the leader is never able to raise his or her sights to the far horizons to shape a vision for the future. He or she is always watching his back or focusing on just the next thing to pull off.

Rather than fostering freedom it leads toward control. Focusing on performance means that the leader is never informed by or living out of his or her values and principles. Rather, others set the standards and the agenda for the expectations of the leader, in effect, then, others control the leader.

Rather than resulting in growth, it leads to stagnation. Leaders who focus on performance quickly settle of a narrow repertoire of “what works” and of what they are good at. They are reluctant to risk learning a new skill or taking on new challenges for fear of failure.

Rather than resulting in maturity, it leads to dependence. Mature leaders are self-directed and the agents of their own goals and destiny. They set their own standards, and they set them high. Leaders who overfocus on performance will always depend on others for direction and to set their boundaries.

Rather than resulting in differentiation, it results in enmeshment. Leaders who suffer from competence anxiety lack the capacity for self-differentiation. They lack the ability to be their true self and cannot differentiate between their personal goals from that of others in the system.

Rather than focusing on functioning, it is preoccupied with appearances. Leadership is about providing the necessary function that the system needs of the person in the leader position. It has little to do with appearing like a leader and more to do with functioning as a leader as is necessary for the context and the moment. Leaders who suffer from the myth of competence will prefer to look like a leader than actually being one.

A fuller treatment of the concept appears in The Hidden Lives of Congregations, and in Leadership in Congregations. Here’s a good review of the concept by Jami Cottman.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.

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