Competence Is As Competence Does

Any sincere politics directed at governing our complex world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families would find its way to some minimum threshold of competence as a prerequisite to office. Minimum competence has no partisan home. A person either qualifies by exceeding the minimum threshold or does not.

Minimum competence is also a prerequisite to performance. No matter how much I might like to be an opera singer, I cannot because I lack the minimum competence to perform. Notwithstanding whatever might have been the case with desire or will (or the lack thereof), Mike Brown lacked the minimum competence to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Had it been a private or non-profit organization governed by folks who cared deeply about performance and purpose, Brown simply would never have been hired. Nor, had he participated in mangagement at any level, would his performance be rated at 100% (see earlier post: Yes, this happened.)

All of which raises a variety of questions about the comments made yesterday by Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican Party, about competence. In a speech to conservative activists, he exclaimed, “We do not and we never should question these Democrat leaders’ patriotism, but we do question their judgment and we do question their ability to keep the American people safe,” he said. “These are people we know love their country, the question is: Can they protect it?”

Judgment and ability are two critical aspects of competence. According to the head of the Republican Party, every single Democratic leader lacks these two characteristics. Every single one. Somehow this man has evaluated every single Democaratic leader in the United States of America and enthusiastically admonishes conservatives and Republicans — indeed anyone reading or seeing his quotes — to distrust the minimum competence of any human being who has the label “Democrat”.

So, let’s put this in other terms that make the broad generalization understandable. Imagine a person in a powerful position saying, “I don’t question the patriotism of women. But I do question their judgment and ability.” Or, “I don’t question the patriotism of Catholics. But I do question their judgment and ability.” Or, “I don’t question the patriotism of every employee at Fox News. But I do question their judgment and ability.” Or, “I don’t question the patriotism of men and women who have served in Iraq. But I do question their judgment and ability.” These parallels have nothing to do with the worst aspects of ‘political correctness’. They have everything to do with this reality: Human beings have traits. They have gender, race, religion, height….. and they have jobs and affiliations.

Among the other attributes of minimum competence to govern and lead in our complex world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families is an orientation and capacity for problem solving. Neither you nor anyone you know would hire or happily work with any manager or leader who was utterly lacking in this capacity. Again, we’re discussing a minimum threshold. You might currently work with others whose problem solving orientation and capacities fall short in your opinion. But, falling short in general differs from falling below some minimum threshold.

A part of that minimum threshold is this: Problem solving demands inviting and respecting (even if not adhering to) as many points of view as possible. Two heads are better than one. Again, every single one of you have experienced problems that were better solved through multiple view points instead of a single view point.

When Ken Mehlman seeks to involve himself in solving problems of getting Republican candidates elected to office, we can be sure he seeks out many viewpoints. At least with respect to electoral politics, we can be confident he rises above the minimum threshold of competence.

But what about governing itself? What about the minimum competence to deal with the vast array of problems facing government, problems such as providing affordable health care, dealing with hurricanes, rebuilding nations destroyed in wars, educating children, countering terrorists, assuring fiscal responsibility, accounting for money spent, finding and keeping the line between lobbying and corruption, protecting the enviroment and assuring America’s respect and standing in the world?

Those are difficult problems demanding the very best in problem solving and, therefore, demading officials who rise above a minimum threshold of competence. They demand openness to many points of view. Ken Mehlman declares himself opposed to this kind of problem solving when it comes to the job of governing America instead of the job of gaining and keeping the power to rule America.

By his own words, he — and any in his audience who take his words as their leader seriously to heart — fall below the minimum threshold of competence upon which all of us rely to keep the planet safe, sane and sustainable. Not because Ken Mehlman is a Republican or a man. Rather, because his own beliefs and words evidence his lack of minimum competence. Ken Mehlman declares himself and all who would follow him opposed to any point of view regarding the problems we face if that point of view is linked to a human being who bears the label “Democrat”. Based on recent national elections, Ken Mehlman and all who would follow him declare themselves opposed to problem solving that invites and encourages the participation of tens of millions of people.

Based on the track record of the past several years, Mehlman may not be alone in this regard. There was Brown at FEMA. There was Katrina. And, we have also seen poor problem solving on display in a prescription drug program that does not work, a rebuilding effort in Iraq that has basic security and infrastructure woefully broken, an education policy in tatters, a counterterrorism effort more characterized by questionable legality than results or efficiency, an utter lack of fiscal responsibility starting with no accounting for money spent, an increasing line up — literally of the police type — of corrupt officials, broad attacks on science that undermine environmental efforts, and an all-time low in America’s standing among people around the world.

Every aspect of this atrocious performance record would have benefited from the kind of minimum threhold of competence Mr. Mehlman lacks. These are world class problems we face. We need at least a minimum orientation toward problem solving in those who we elect to govern if we hope to do better than today’s tragic track record of bad performance.

Mr. Mehlman, by his own admonishing words, lacks this competence. Or, he is just grandstanding. He is just putting his passion for winning and ruling above his concern for people, values, America and the planet.

Either way, he is dangerous. And, he is spreading his disease of incompetence to others.

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