Avoid the Inevitable Disaster of Being a Competent Jerk

Co-authors Linda Hill and Kent Lineback shared some valuable leadership advice from their book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, during a recent HBR Video IdeaCast. In addition to discussing the importance of cultivating strong networks, Hill addressed the question, “What happens if you’re a competent jerk?”

She explained that when you are a “competent jerk,” if people think you’re competent, at first they will deal with you, but the harder they find it is to work with you, the less they will care how competent you are. Pretty soon you’ll be in a position where people pretend to be working with you, but they’re not really. They avoid you; you are no longer included and you soon become powerless and ineffective.

When this happens, eventually you’ll discover that you begin to lose your competence, because competence develops from interacting with other people – that’s where expertise comes from. If you’re isolated you are not going to have the latest expertise. You’re not going to know what’s really important or how to use that information most constructively within your organization. Ultimately, it all ties back to the concept of cultivating relationships and building strong networks to support your mission.

So how do you avoid becoming a competent jerk? Hill encouraged leaders to repeatedly ask themselves “How do people experience me and how do people experience themselves when they’re with me?” She acknowledged that these are hard questions, but leaders should constantly be asking these questions of themselves and be checking with their team for honest feedback.

Don’t confuse competence with good leadership – as a leader you should frequently do a self-assessment to determine if your behavior as a leader is healthy and constructive. Lineback shared this simple but important insight, “As a leader, you need to learn to see yourself as other people see you. You need to understand how you make other people feel when they’re with you.”

How about you – how do your direct reports, your team and your colleagues see you? Are you pleasant to work with? Take the advice of Linda Hill and Kent Lineback – frequently ask yourself these questions, and then do something about it if change is needed.

Don’t be a competent jerk!


Discussion: Have you ever worked for a “competent jerk” – if so, what was his/her most frustrating trait?

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I am a leader, speaker, and author who is passionate about Leadership Excellence and Achieiving Greater Success. I am the author of the books Be An Inspirational Leader(2016) and Presidential Leadership (2013), and deliver keynote presentations on those topics and several others.

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