What is your level of incompetence?

Last year, I listened to an audio book called, Good Boss, Bad Boss by Dr. Robert Sutton. It was interesting, entertaining, and caused me to reflect on my craft as an educator and my work as a building leader. His statements were challenging, funny, and also sobering. He told story after story about what makes a good boss or a bad boss based on information he received from readers across the world. I liked it so much, I listened to it twice and bought the book for my administrative team.

One question he raised that resonated with me was, “What is your level of incompetence?” I’ve never heard such a thing, but it got me thinking…

As we face a constant state of change in our school systems, I’ve been asking myself that question more often than not… “what is my level of incompetence?” For clarity, Dr. Sutton defines this as, “one’s inability to complete a task due to a lack of knowledge and/or skill.” To admit one’s own level of incompetence is frightening, but also liberating at the same time. I choose the term frightening, because as a leader, one is looked to for direction, insight, and guidance, all of which can be daunting. At the same time, it is liberating because it opens up opportunities for others to emerge as leaders, empowers others in your organization, and allows for positive changes to take place.

As of late, I feel I am reaching my level of incompetence when it comes to taking our building to the next level. We’ve updated our wireless infrastructure, we’ve created a Graduate Profile of 21st Century Skills, and we have a brand new addition to the school that is the “spearhead of change” for our district. These are large changes that challenge our current system so much so that I feel we are in a constant state of flux, which is uncomfortable. It often feels like we have two systems battling for supremacy with no idea which one will win, or if there even should be a winner.

All these things together have created an internal feeling of chaos and discomfort that I can’t seem to shake. Now that I think about it, am I feeling incompetent or uncomfortable? What about you: when you face a challenge, do you feel uncomfortable or incompetent? If you are even thinking about it, I would bet that what you and I are feeling is uncomfortable because our normal paradigm has been shaken and we are forced to learn new ways of thinking, and to develop different strategies to convey a compelling message to lead others to change. Isn’t this what learning is all about? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Be Great,




  1. Tom King said:

    We all hold a different hand of cards, some that enable a bid, others that make it impossible.

    In addition to the cards, is our level of competence to understand the game, our opponents and what we control and what we do not.

    Focused practice helps decrease the role of good and bad luck. Competence helps, but it never eliminates bad luck.

    In a nutshell, control what you can and reduce your incompetence to as close to zero as you can.

    Read Atul Gawande’s wonderful piece on improving your personal best in a recent New Yorker:


    December 3, 2011
  2. I do a good bit of leadership coaching for principals and also speak at education conferences around the country. I realize that we are all in the same boat…rowing as fast as we can but never getting to our destination. Goethe, the German philosopher , said “Things which matter most should never be at the mercy of things that matter least”. We need to take our schools back!! We know what is needed in our particular and unique schools. We have intelligent teachers and a committed staff. Let’s bring about the brilliance in all and do our thing. Let’s be the leaders we know we are.

    December 3, 2011
  3. Mike Dunn said:

    Great post Dwight. Your thoughts bring me to reflect on two points: 1) the necessity in being a visionary leader and 2) the truth that we all are constantly learning and growing as leaders. I firmly believe that as leaders we are no just looking to June from September but have a vision for what we want our place to be in the next 10, 20, 30 years! Our job is, in part, to always be working to establish that vision within ourselves and work toward reshaping the vision as we go. This is where the incompetency comes in and where we must connect to movements of educators who are doing great work so we can learn to reshape our vision!

    Thanks for the post!

    December 3, 2011
  4. Bill Horniak said:

    A teacher shared a quote with me a long time ago. “The first step toward being educated is being able and willing to convey to others that you do not know everything.” I truly think your peers and colleagues appreciate this when you are asked to lead, direct or answer questions for them? I suppose it is not having to do this so often. 🙂 With this said, people who work in education realize there is such an array of areas and facets to our jobs it is likley quite possible to not know everything there is to our profession. As a leader exercising humility and copmpasssion toward your subordinates and colleagues will go a long way in usurping your incompetencies. Regardless of how capable and competent you are there will still be those out there who will naively judge and convict you of being incompetent anyhow in my honest opinion.

    December 5, 2011
  5. Grant Lichtman said:


    Great thoughts; I am adding to my archive of subjects to address and link back to when I get my blog (finally) up and running in the next month or so. I have been thinking and working for a long time on the ideas of how we leverage chaos and discomfort, and how that should be a central part of what we teach our young people as in that management is one key to a more happy life.

    A few years back I started teaching about this to our high schoolers and that evolved into a book I wrote about strategic and creational thinking, and how we can and should be teaching these skills to our students, be they in 4th grade or high school or college. It always confounded me that we thought these ideas were beyond our students (I am a pretty old guy) and we were afraid to give them these tools which embrace and manage chaos and discomfort. I have recently had the chance to teach this to cadets from West Point who are going to go into places that define things like chaos and discomfort, and they “get it”. Maybe you would enjoy the material. The book is titled “The Falconer” and is on amazon.com and places like that. I am not a famous author; just and educator who believes that we can not only learn to embrace and leverage chaos and uncomfortable and incompetence, but we can also teach youngsters to do the same.

    Happy to continue this discussion with you directly if you want to contact me.

    December 5, 2011
  6. […] What is your level of incompetence? This article got me thinking. Dr. Sutton defines this as, “one’s inability to complete a task due to a lack of knowledge and/or skill.” This is frightening form any especially teachers in our own classrooms which we are used to having control over and being successful at it. I feel this would be a good professional development speech for the teachers in a building to hear and really reflect on our traits and how to make ourselves better every year so we do not get stuck in a rut, and become “that person”. […]

    December 7, 2011
  7. Dwight Carter said:

    Thank you all for your comments and reflective thoughts. We had the greatest profession in the world and I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is what having a PLN is all about.

    Be Great,


    December 7, 2011

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