02 Oct 2020 00:50 IST

To be or not to be: Choosing between competence and character

In the long run, choosing a competent person with character flaws can be detrimental to an organisation

Watching the US Presidential debates brought back memories of times I had to choose between two candidates for the one role or for the one promotion we had budgeted for. To most of us watching from the outside, the Trump vs Biden choice seems a straightforward one. Without even getting to the merits of Biden, Trump, to any sane thinking individual, seems completely unfit for the office of President. He’s shown himself to be narcissisticand unethical.

Yet talking to many Americans the choice isn’t so clear. For many diehard ‘Trumpers’ the choice for Trump seems the best thing for America. And then there are the Undecideds – especially traditional Republicans who are weighing what they are seeing and hearing and wondering who to choose between the two. It’s very likely that in our roles as business leaders we will come upon such a dilemma many times in our careers. How do we make the wiser choice?

Character vs competence

One of the arguments thrown out by ‘Trumpers’ is that he’s a businessman and therefore much more competent to run the country than the stuck-in-the-quagmire politicians of Washington. He would know how to manage the economy much better. He would do great things for the country’s development. And, to be fair, many metrics did look up in the early years of Trump’s term, though in many cases it was like he was dropping a ball and claiming credit for gravity.

How do we make a decision between two team members when we have to choose one for an important role, a new assignment, a challenging promotion? Assume they meet the minimum bar on competence, but one candidate has an edge on the competence front. He’s brought in some stellar numbers ahead of the other candidate. But there have been some issues on the character front. He’s known to be rude to team mates. There have been the occasional complaints on how he treats women. The second candidate is also very competent, but her results are slightly behind the first guy’s. But she’s rock solid on character. High integrity. Walks the talk. Colleagues praise the way she stands up for them. Respects people while still demanding high standards. What do we do? In whose favour do we decide? My experience is that character ‘trumps’ competence every time.

Countries often choose strong-man leaders, claiming the competence argument even when they are aware of serious character flaws. In the long run the character flaws come home to roost for the citizens who voted that same strong man to power. This is especially true if the character issues are what we could call fatal flaws. Bigotry, lack of integrity, megalomania – these could all end up being fatal flaws.

Take Hitler. Often praised for his organisational skills, his impact as an inspiring orator was remarkable, but his fatal flaw of bigotry, racism and megalomania eventually threatened to destroy not just his country but the world. There’s the now-forgotten case of an IT major, whose extremely competent blue-eyed sales and marketing boy had a sexual harassment suit filed by his executive secretary. Eventually, the IT major fired him prioritising character over competence. Similar things happened at HP with Mark Hurd, at Fox with Roger Ailes. In India we’ve had the case of the celebrated lady-CEO of one of India’s leading banks having to bow out when decisions she made on approving loans raised questions of favouritism and personal gain. In each of these cases, competence wasn’t at issue, character was.

Humility vs arrogance

I’ve often found that when you need to choose between two almost equals, looking for who has traces of arrogance and who displays ‘personal humility combined with professional will’ (as Jim Collins would describe his Level 5 leader) is a useful measure to use. By that measure, the case against Trump is open and shut. Supremely arrogant, always sure he’s right, and blindsided by his own vanity, Trump has made decision after decision that flies in the face of logic and what was right for the country. Because of his arrogance he trusts his own gut instead of the inputs of experts. Part of the reason for the Covid-19 disaster in the US can be squarely laid at his door simply because of his arrogance. Biden comes across as more humble, more aware of his limitations and more willing to seek help in governing and decision making. Citizens and business people are prone to the same error - when choosing a leader, they mistake braggadocio for confidence. It’s only later that they realise that this arrogance leads to poor decision making.

Ratan Tata’s humility allowed him to grow the Tata group without seeking the spotlight. His humility created a willingness to listen, to be open - that in most cases resulted in better decisions and better business results. But several disastrous acquisitions, companies with the ‘stomach of a chicken, but the eyes of a tiger’ attempting to go big, seem triggered by hubris and often end up with a crash-and-burn story.

A candidate who is all about himself, whose sole contributions led to brilliant turnarounds, whose individual brainwaves created revolutions, may be short term winners but they’re likely to trip up and fall on their own pride. The humble candidate on the other hand who shines the light on her team, who is confident but has her feet on the ground, is often the better bet. I’d pick a Dinesh Karthik over a ‘brag and boast’ star-batsman every day of the week and twice on a Sunday.

Marathoner vs sprinter

While individual situations may sometimes specifically call for a sprint style of leadership, for lasting success it’s the marathoner who is needed. Not the flash-bang, visibly attractive sprinter but the steady, sometimes boring running of the marathoner.

In his book Coffee Can Investing, (Coffee Can Investing: The Low Risk Road to Stupendous Wealth, Mukherjea, Ranjan, Uniyal, Penguin Books) Saurabh Mukherjea compares Rahul Dravid to Virender Sehwag. “While Dravid is perceived to be the accumulator of runs, Sehwag is perceived to be the prolific scorer of runs.” Dravid seems perfectly suited for the staid pace of a five-day match, Sehwag seems made for T20. But the statistics bely this. “Not only does Dravid outperform Sehwag in every version of cricket, Dravid’s outperformance (as measured by his batting average) is the widest in T20 and the narrowest in Test cricket.” (Dravid’s T20 average is 31 vs Sehwag’s 22 – 41 per cent better).

That’s what we need to look for when the choice is between the two and we’re hard pressed who to choose. Who displays the traits and record of the marathoner? Who shows the resilience, the show-up-every day consistency of the marathoner? Some of India’s best companies are run by CEOs who never figure on the front pages of business magazines or newspapers. They plod on behind the scenes delivering spectacular results year after year while their competitors are sprinting in the quest for short-term glory.

So anytime we’re faced with the ‘choosing between the two’ situation let’s use these three tests to choose wisely. They take the mask off and show us the mettle of the leader below.

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