The Confidence of the Incompetent: Why Bad Leaders Are Hard to Help | HDI

by Alma Miller
March 14, 2019

Imagine that you are in a large room full of brilliant executive leaders. Everyone is waiting with anticipation to receive an inspiring message from a renowned organizational psychologist and leadership development guru.

The speaker opens by stating that more than 50% of leaders actually exemplify very poor leadership skills and are ineffective. The attendees seem unamused by that statistic. The speaker then requests that every leader in the room raise their hand if they think they are better than the average leader. In response, you witness a sea of hands in the air. Next, the speaker tells them to lower their hands and look to the left and right. With puzzled expressions on their faces, they follow the instructions. And then the aha moment happens. The leaders in the room realize that the ineffective leader is the person sitting next to them. Or even worse, it was them. Then you realize the room is filled with individuals either with willful ignorance and higher than moderate level of arrogance to assume it wasn’t them, or bashful embarrassment as a counter.

What an awkward predicament to be in. This is a real incident from a keynote speech described by Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of the best-selling book Insight.

The irony of this situation is that it can be repeated in any organization across any industry and location, and the outcome will be relatively the same. Most bad leaders are completely oblivious to their own ineffectiveness and its impact to their organization and consequently their team. As the old saying goes, people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.

If you go into any organization and ask anyone to self-identify if they are a bad leader, you will often find no volunteers. However, if you ask people to name bad leaders within their organization, the list is plentiful. How can this be possible? One list is very sparse with a few names documented, and the other is overrun with names. Two lists representing one organization.

Bad leaders often don’t know they are bad.
Tweet: Bad leaders often don’t know they are bad. @ThinkHDI #leadership #workforcemanagement

We can deduce from this anecdote and our own personal experiences that bad leaders often don’t know they are bad. They assume mistakes are due to others’ negligence, and disasters are often unavoidable and out of their sphere of control. Washington Post author Angela Fritz calls it the confidence of incompetence. These excuses, and the many more that we have all heard, support the principle of the Dunning Krueger effect. Researcher David Dunning simplified the Dunning Krueger effect:

“[The condition] in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.” 

When these individuals are leaders within the organization, it can be very hard to help them see and recognize their flaws and thus improve the overall performance of the organization. But there is a light at the end of this bleak tunnel.

Every organization that I have supported has suffered from this same confidence of the incompetent. Because I have a listening ear for those that need to express their grievances, I find myself playing the role of an armchair therapist quite frequently. The one piece of advice I have given to each and every person that has found themselves demoralized because of their ineffective leaders is redirect your focus. Focus on improving yourself to be the best contributor to the organization instead of your leader’s missteps.

The advice is not fancy or glamorous and often leaves people feeling disappointed. But in its simplicity, it is quite profound. Focusing on yourself manifests in many different ways:

  • How you communicate with others
  • How you present yourself in face-to-face meetings
  • Your attitude and demeanor
  • Your capacity to learn

By focusing on all these areas, two things will happen.

  1. Your performance levels will naturally improve because you are doing these actions on a consistent basis.
  2. Your behavior and actions will unconsciously influence those that are around you, including your leadership.

The worst thing anyone could do when faced with bad leadership is to dwell in the dysfunction or try to illustrate to their leader their ineffectiveness. Try it the next time you start to feel unmotivated and apathetic towards your leadership. Let me know if it works. Share your insight, and we can keep the conversation going. Find me on LinkedIn, and let’s talk about it.


Dr. Alma Miller is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, speaker, and educator with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Catholic University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from George Washington University. Dr. Miller considers herself a relationship counselor between development and IT operations teams. Her consulting company, AC Miller Consulting , provides services to government and commercial clients across multiple industries. Dr. Miller speaks at industry conferences and events and teaches graduate courses for Johns Hopkins and University of California Irvine. Connect with her on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.


Tag(s): supportworld, workforce enablement, workforce enablement, leadership

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