Competence is Bad For Your Career

Reader OldVet weighs in about David Petraeus:

Here’s the obituary of a real soldier, quickly forgotten, who put out the straight word on another unpopular war. He was also the most ferocious and unyielding combatants on our side in that conflict. He stood head and shoulders above the rest during his time, and I only wish we had military leaders who were fit to shake his hand serving us today.

Perhaps the most competent person I ever worked for in the private sector was a corporate Vice President whose first name was Jeff. Jeff was like Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction – when something went wrong, they called him in to fix it. (There were a few others like him – in a big corporation one fix-it person isn’t enough. But I think he was the best of the fix-it guys.)

But Jeff never rose to the top ranks – he never got a seat at the the big boys table. The reason is simple… while the top brass knew Jeff was the most competent guy they had (or they wouldn’t keep using him to solve the messes other people created), he wasn’t what they were looking for in an executive. What they wanted in an executive was someone who says definitively: “Yes” or “No”, even if its wrong. And Jeff was competent enough to know that the answer is never as simple as Yes or No. So less competent individuals made it to the top… and Jeff cleaned up after them.

A guy like Hackworth – who worried about the ordinary grunts and didn’t see the simple solutions on the battlefield – well, he’s not what a President who doesn’t do nuance wants in a military commander. And I suspect he’s not what a President who doesn’t do nuance got in a military commander.