The Playbook of the Incompetent Leader
Up is the only way they fail
(This article is based on the playbook presented by Shreyas Doshi)
First-time founders, CEOs, and even employees should have a thorough understanding of the playbook of the Incompetent Leader (IL).
Once you learn to see this pattern, you cannot unsee it - we’ve all met a number of these people.
The IL is a seemingly savvy and charismatic individual who excels at four key tactics:
Feigning Competence: The IL is a master at pretending to be competent, creating the illusion of expertise and capability.
Creating Confusion: They thrive on generating confusion within the organization, making it difficult for others to discern their true abilities and intentions.
Buying Time: One of the IL's favorite moves is to buy time, constantly delaying accountability and scrutiny.
Failing Up: The IL's ultimate strategy is to fail upwards, leveraging their charisma and deception to achieve higher positions despite their incompetence.
Now, let's delve deeper into each of these tactics:
The IL's ability to appear competent is often their initial tool of manipulation. They use their charm and charisma to convince others that they are qualified for their role. This facade can be convincing, especially to those who are eager for the IL to succeed.
To maintain their deceptive image, ILs deliberately sow confusion within the organization. They may obfuscate their decisions, mislead their subordinates, and encourage an atmosphere of chaos that makes it difficult for anyone to question their competence.
The IL's most frequently employed tactic is buying time. This involves continually postponing critical decisions or actions, frequently by citing the need for the right team or the necessity for organizational changes. By doing so, they effectively delay being held accountable for their actions.
After successfully buying time and creating confusion, the IL eventually reaches a point where they orchestrate their exit strategy. This often involves strategically “failing up” by appearing to have accomplished something significant or demonstrating growth, despite the actual lack of substantial achievements.
The IL playbook
The Incompetent Leader's primary strategy is straightforward: Buy Time. Following closely as their second favorite maneuver: Secure Even More Time. After employing these tactics multiple times, the IL's pièce de résistance emerges: Failing Their Way Up. This cycle tends to repeat several times over the course of a 20-30 year career until they achieve what appears to be 'remarkable success.'
Here's the blueprint:
Once upon a time...
An IL embarks on a new journey, welcomed with great fanfare by an enthusiastic CEO who ardently desires their success. Keep in mind that the IL lacks the capacity to make a substantial, singular impact. But the IL is determined to conceal this fact from everyone. So, what's their course of action?
They set their playbook into motion.
IL: “I don't have the right people. Execution without the right team is impossible!”
CEO: “I suppose that's a valid concern. Take the necessary steps.”
Outcome: By uttering these words, the IL has effectively secured a window of 6 - 9 months to recruit organizational leaders and managers, all the while masking their incompetence with charisma and self-assuredness.
Step 2 (After 6-9 months)
IL: “I've assembled a stronger team now. Take a look at the quality of my recent hires! However, I'm concerned that our organization's current structure doesn't align with our new strategy, and this misalignment could jeopardize our execution.”
CEO: “Hmm... Very well, proceed.”
Outcome: With this response, the IL has effectively secured a period of 3 months to strategize and execute a reorganization, followed by an additional 3 months to allow the changes to stabilize within the organization.
Step 3 (after 6 more months; 12-15 months in)
IL: “Alright, the recent reorganization has certainly had a positive impact; my team is performing at its best. However, there's still a significant gap in cross-functional alignment. We might require another company-wide reorganization, possibly integrating those functions into my department, or even considering the appointment of new cross-functional leaders. By the way, I know a handful of great leaders we should hire for those roles.”
CEO (noncommittal): “Very well, let's explore options X, Y, and Z in this regard.”
Outcome: In response, the IL has managed to secure the CEO's tentative agreement to consider potential actions for improving cross-functional alignment, thereby extending their ability to buy more time and delay accountability.
Step 4 (after 6 more months; 18-21 months in)
IL: “Some of my key people left (keeping the reason a secret: because of frustration with all of this). I now need to address these vacancies. By the way, take a look at the exceptional results we achieved last quarter!”
CEO: “Alright, let me take some time to consider the situation...”
CEO (internally): “These results seem to be more a result of favorable market conditions rather than the IL's remarkable leadership.”
[Privately, the CEO initiates contact with an executive search firm to begin the process of identifying a replacement for the IL.]
Step 5 (after a couple more months; we’re 2+ years in by now)
CEO: "The time has come for us to go our separate ways."
IL (expressing initial disbelief and frustration): "I acknowledge the decision. My priority is to act in the best interest of the company. Let's collaborate on creating a communication strategy for my departure."
[Either the IL or the CEO proceeds to draft and circulate an announcement to the entire organization, expressing gratitude, reflecting on the past, and conveying a forward-looking perspective.]
Step 6, the most vital move for IL
IL ( in interview with hot next company Foobar): Here's everything I built at <previouscompany>. I grew that company 70% in my 2 years, despite all the challenges I’d faced.
CEO of Foobar, with starstruck eyes: When can you start?
How to Catch an Incompetent Leader?
Honestly, if they play their game well (and most do…) it’s quite hard. That said, you can increase your chances with the following:
Hiring Process Vigilance:
Use a meticulous hiring process, including reference checks and thorough background assessments.
Clearly define job expectations, goals, and responsibilities when hiring leaders.
Regular Performance Checks:
Conduct routine performance reviews for all leaders, including the IL. Get feedback from various sources.
Use a 360-degree feedback system to gather input from peers, subordinates, and supervisors.
Encourage open communication and provide channels for anonymous reporting of concerns.
Occasionally bring in external auditors or consultants to evaluate leadership and organizational health.
Establish whistleblower protection to safeguard employees who report unethical behavior.
Regularly assess team performance under ILs to verify claims match results.
Red Flags Awareness:
Train HR and management to recognize common tactics used by fraudulent leaders.
Act swiftly if signs of manipulation or incompetence persist, including termination if needed.