On empathy, competence and leadership

In my opinion, among many other things, leadership is also the ability to act on the strenght of entrepreneurial hunch (reference to Boisot here): to have an holistic view of the problems and situations we face, beyond the self.

And that’s where empathy comes into play.

Empathy is a key skill to expand perspectives. The right amount can help you spotting people’s weakness and strengths, and use them to build something.

Too much empathy, and you end up with the good samaritan’s syndrome, or you may get easily lost into psychological projection, assuming that your feelings and perceptions are the same as other people’s.

Too little empathy, and you lose perspective.

Thus, empathy can be seen as a broader view beyond the self. The broader the view, the more the linkages and patterns to explore. Exploring alone is not enough, we also need to exploit the dynamic between complex and complicated (in Cynefin terms) and the point I want to raise here is that, in order to exploit, you need competence.


Competence can be conscious, when you are able to use it with effort, and can be unconscious, when applying soft or hard skills becomes more or less automatic. In my opinion, when we talk about soft skills, competence is mainly unconscious. This also means that unconscious competence is part of your filter bubble, and it can be good or bad, depending on the context.

That’s why we should endorse cognitive diversity in teams to tackle complex problems.

Along competence, there can be incompetence. It can be conscious and unconscious too.

Now, although the above classification may be simplistic, combining it with Cynefin, gave me an interesting overview about some patterns and behaviors I’ve observed in the past and that I am sure will observe in the future.

I identified this area for the conscious incompetence. Because of our incompetence, we are unable to exploit opportunities. That’s why the movement between complex and complicated it is not possible. At least, we are aware of it (that’s why I included the authentic disorder in the area). It’s enough to avoid disasters (even if we sometimes walk in the liminal area between complex and chaos).

And here is the really dangerous one: unconscious incompetence.

Quoting prof. Snowden (reference from the article I linked above)

Here I show the danger zone between obvious and chaos as an extension of the inauthentic aspect of disorder.  In earlier years this was sometimes called the complacent zone.  It is a type of liminality but its one you are not aware of until you fall over the cliff. 

From my point of view, when dealing with complex problems, arrogance is usually a sign that someone else is in that zone. Sometimes (or very often, in my experience) others pay for our (bad) decisions – a very well known pattern especially among consultants, coaches and politicians – and we are allowed to lay in that zone comfortably amplifying our ego, while empathy goes down in a negative feedback loop. People affected by Dunning-Kruger cognitive dysfunction that built careers on that are usually in this eternal limbo.

Conscious competence is the area of expertise. We move in a safe space, carefully avoiding dynamics that can trigger innovation and involves risk (liminal complex – chaotic) and we have enough expertise to recognize our limits. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. If we don’t: we’re in the unconscious incompetence (and dangerous) zone.

Unconscious competence involves authentic disorder, it helps us in finding linkages, and explore-exploit opportunities relying on our or other people’s skills. It is the space in which our intuitions about abductive linkages are usually confirmed. In agile coaching and consultancy field, when dealing with people, it is a kind of competence we build with a long story of failures which you recognized and accepted with humilty and courage.

Every “broken bone” or “scar on the field” is a pattern we’ll be able to recognize in the near future. As human beings, we’ve always learned from stories of failure, not by building up autocelebrative communities of unconscious incompetents.

Last but not least, I want to mention another aspect of unconscious competence: the impostor syndrome (specular to Dunning-Kruger), when someone is SO competent but they firmly think they aren’t. A bad place to stay, a kind of limbo that makes us missing exploitation (so the movement represented above it’s not possible).

To conclude, answering to a friend that’s why I believe there is no leadership without empathy, competence and authenticity (at least as we intend leadership within agile community).

EDIT: Twitter thread with interesting comments if you want to expand on the topic.

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