March 3, 2020

Facing the scary (but exciting) boundary between competence and incompetence

“This is not just an era of change; it is increasingly a change of era.” y

General Sir Nick Carter, head of the British Arm

I tend to avoid using the term VUCA; it has become overused (particularly by consultants) and increasingly is ‘just another buzz word’. It is, however, interesting to reflect on why it has become so popular now. Many people are not aware that is is not a new term, it originated in the U.S. Army War College to describe the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world they faced following the end of the Cold War (Kinsinger & Walch, 2012). After the 2001 terrorism attacks on 9/11, the notion of VUCA took off in earnest. It has subsequently been adopted broadly in the business world to describe our “new normal”. I believe its current popularity is due to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity increasingly becoming our anxiety-provoking lived experience.

As we enter a new decade, the world has become entirely bewildering. In one season, Australia has experienced extreme drought, wildfires and floods. We have seen the emergence of a novel Coronavirus that seems poised to become a global pandemic. Nationalism, populism and racism seem to be on the rise virtually everywhere. And in the midst of all of this, we need to make decisions that can have long term implications for the families and businesses we are responsible for.

“Overall, you must assume that the past you believed you understood will not return. “

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General

All of this leads to a sense of being “unmoored”; of losing our bearings and having no solid ground to anchor us. It also forces us to continually have to confront and navigate the boundary between competence and incompetence. We live in a world governed by narratives that equate our worth to knowing, having answers and being confident. However, the knowledge and skills that brought us past success are now becoming irrelevant at a mind-bending pace.

In the “here-and-now” experience of everyday life, situations emerge and evolve from moment to moment. What will happen next is inherently uncertain and unpredictable. It is here where we need to confront the tension between knowing and not knowing; between competence and incompetence. I have observed several responses to navigating this boundary, in myself and others. Some of the less helpful of these include:

  • Rigidity: sometimes the anxiety of not knowing is so high it compels us to ignore facts that are right in front of us and cling to beliefs, knowledge and ideas that served us in contexts that no longer exist.
  • Overwhelm and confusion: Sometimes, we become fatigued by dealing with information overload and paradoxically not having enough information to inform our decisions. Often I find myself unable to make simple decisions like what to cook for dinner, nevermind where to invest my money, or which business opportunities to pursue or abandon.
  • Dependence: when we don’t have answers and cannot guarantee that our decisions will be sound, it is very seductive to seek out experts or place our hope in a leader who will be our “saviour”. When we do this, we abdicate our responsibility, betray our competence and surrender agency. At our recent symposium on complexity in human systems, Alicia Juarerro noted a concern that if we cannot find a way to befriend uncertainty, those who promise certainty will always have a following. This is why we see nationalism and populism on the rise.

“Our personal relationship with uncertainty is fundamental to being human, yet over the last 30 years, we’ve begun outsourcing it to other people. You have a relationship with those big questions.”

Diego Espinosa, Founder, Sistema Research, Prof. Finance at the University of San Diego
  • Withdrawal: Sometimes, the only option that seems safe is to withdraw, to “check out”. In South Africa, we have seen an exodus of competent people, choosing to remove themselves from the complexity of living in a country that faces multiple complexities and seems ever poised on the edge of chaos. It is easier to emigrate to another country than staying here and facing our incompetence in dealing with extreme inequality, double-digit unemployment, rampant corruption, violent crime, racism and various broken systems that are a legacy of our past.
  • Busyness: Busyness can be a very effective way of hiding. If we keep moving, even in circles, we can avoid facing our incompetence. We can continue pretending that we have answers and that we know where we are going. As long as we are moving, we don’t have to acknowledge that we are lost.
  • Paralysis: This can show up in different ways: there is the so-called “deer in the headlights” response where anxiety leads to complete inaction. Then there is procrastination: where we keep putting things off, waiting for the right time or enough information. Sometimes it shows up as avoidance, keeping ourselves busy with other inconsequential tasks and not engaging with the real issue; or we refuse to make choices and try to do everything or be everything to everyone. All of these responses have the same effect: profound stuckness.
  • Guilt and shame: when we make mistakes and our incompetence is exposed, we often experience shame, especially when we are in roles where we are supposed to know. Shame can show up in different ways: we may blame others and become perpetual victims, or we become defensive, unable to take on board any feedback. Sometimes we become bullies, putting everyone else down in an attempt to hide our incompetence and shame and feel better about ourselves.

All of the above responses make it virtually impossible to learn; which is probably the number one skill we need to become more able to navigate uncertainty.

Other, more helpful responses include:

  • Humility and openness to learning: if we can admit the limits of our competence, and instead of withdrawing, giving into dependence or becoming overwhelmed, resolve to stay present. To “sit in the fire” as Arnold Mindell advocates. One of my clients reflected that when she truly understood that she is dealing with a complex system, it was as if a weight lifted off her shoulders. She realised that it was “ok not to know”, that no-one could know everything and that we are all learning and evolving together. Humility enables us to journey with, and learn from others who bring different wisdom and perspectives, but also conflict. This takes courage and a willingness to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.
  • The courage to be vulnerable: Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “The emotion we all experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is not about winning or losing; it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.” Showing up is the opposite of withdrawing; it means feeling incompetent and afraid and speaking up and trying anyway.
  • Slowing down and making time to think: Sometimes we need to take a step back. Ron Heifetz talks about getting a “balcony view” — as long as we are part of the frenetic pace on the dance floor, we cannot gain perspective. Slowing down is very hard to do when we face volatility and uncertainty. When our context is speeding up, the pressure to keep up seems irresistible; but what I have seen over and over again in the organisations I work with is that leaders who prioritise thinking and reflection time are the ones that navigate the turbulence best.
  • Being open to necessary endings and saying NO: when confronted with the limits of our knowledge and competence in the face of a VUCA context, making decisions can be tough. It is tempting to hedge our bets and try to cover too many bases. If we spread ourselves too thin, we may end up getting nothing done. Here I find a pruning analogy (borrowed from Henry Cloud) useful: for optimal yield, a fruit tree or rose bush needs pruning. Cutting away dead or diseased branches is easy; as is cutting away so-called water shoots or suckers that draw nutrients and energy away from the rest of the plant. But what about healthy branches that may already be ready to bud? Are we able to cut those away to ensure a higher yield overall?

This boundary between competence and incompetence is a liminal space that we need to get used to. It is not a tension that is going to resolve itself anytime soon; in fact, it will probably get worse.

As individuals, some of the questions that might be helpful to consider are:

  • When we find ourselves in new and uncertain environments, are we able to hold onto the competencies we do have, or do we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and deskilled when we don’t feel fully in control?
  • Do we sometimes deskill ourselves in new and uncertain environments to avoid having to take responsibility — i.e. do we choose to become less competent than we really are?
  • When we do make clumsy mistakes despite our best intentions as we attempt to work in the unknown, can we learn from it and keep moving forward? Or do we use these mistakes as a justification for our withdrawal, procrastination or rigidity?

In short: Can we hold onto our competence while acknowledging and working with our incompetence? Can we turn our anxiety into creative energy and resist disengaging from a disconcerting world that is in dire need of us showing up?


  • Dare to lead. Dr Brene Brown. 2018
  • Necessary Endings. Dr Henry Cloud. 2010
  • Director’s report of the 2017 Group Relations Conference in the Tavistock Tradition: Leading at the boundaries of the unknown. Dr Jean Cooper
  • The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organisation and the World. Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M., 2009.
  • Living and Leading in a VUCA world. Kingsinger, P. & Walch, K. (2012, July 9).

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