The Contest for Competence

Thor May
Brisbane, 2012*

*last updated 10 August 2013


If some people don't break the rules sometimes, then a normal society will cease to function. Breaking the wrong rules for the wrong reasons is like breaking legs though. And if everyone breaks the rules, then a society will disintegrate. A paradox? Yes. See how this cake is baked...

The vector in play is the scarce resource of competence. Most people doing most things are marginally competent at best, and this is in every area of human activity, taken in its aggregate. Any given individual may be good at one thing - cooking, music, his job, whatever - but the aggregate of people doing any of those activities will be indifferently capable. In fact, a significant number will be seriously incapable, and they may do damage out of proportion to their numbers. There will be a small number who are brilliant at this particular thing.


The scarcity of competence holds true in even the best educated societies and professions. Medical doctors, for example, are very, very often downright dangerous (e.g. Null et al 2003: “Death by Medicine”). Doctors are not unique in this matter. A ten year study across multinational companies showed that only 10% of managers are effective (Bruch and Ghoshal 2004). Apparently all the hoopla of “Human Resource” managers makes little net difference. We could easily extend this catalogue of net incompetence into every trade and profession. Overall however, the balance is presumed to be more negative in those communities where education is devalued and opportunity is not equal.


Some competencies are straightforward to evaluate. You can change a bicycle tyre or you can’t. Others have shifting criteria: for example, when can you be judged as “fluent” in a foreign language? Yet other competencies are loaded with value judgements: is this or that president/prime minister competent or not? As the complexities of modern societies multiply, these judgements become more difficult.


Very often, as members of one culture, society or nation we judge rival groups to be competent or incompetent. This has major consequences for decision making in both business and government. From these comparisons, we may wish to reform our own society, or that of others. Competency at reform is amongst the most difficult of all endeavors. If you want to change the world, then change what children wish for measured against what children learn they can have.


By ten years of age I think that most children have at least a good working model in their mind of how their parents construe the world, its values and its opportunities. They might continue to evaluate that model, and not unusually reject at least parts of it for a while. Sometimes dramatic life experience will turn those expectations upside down (e.g. children in wars). However we also know that cultures have extraordinary persistence, and are extremely difficult to re-engineer. Inescapably, each child must learn to manage change as part of growing up. Often that is not easy. Sometimes it is catastrophic. Nature puts sex on top of the parental template, and fools children into thinking it is the most important thing of all. Yet all the striving for sexual conquest and its sublimations is also shaped and driven by the child's acquired parental template of how the world works. Some parts of that template, like love and nurture, are found everywhere, though twisted in many ways. Many other things are magnified by this culture or that. The acquisitive obsession is one, narcissism another. Throughout the whole growth process are opportunities for success and failure, acquired skills for competence or a resigned conviction of being no good at this or that.


Much of the evil in the world comes from attempts to conceal or compensate for incompetence and failure. The manner of handling failure is one of those keys to the heart where learning begins before 10 years of age. If we could only learn to value doing whatever we do as well as we can, then much that is ugly would vanish. Can we learn as children to respect those who do a good job above those who have a big house and three cars in the driveway? Can we wish not to despise the owners of big houses, but to admire the skill of the carpenters who made them?


These dilemmas over how to find and focus our small reserves of competence are as old as the human cavalcade. Only the available tools have changed. The contest between societies and groups, ancient or modern, is not about 'capitalism' and 'communism', or all the other '~isms' . It is about the struggle to capture the scarce carriers of competence. They may be bought by cash or prestige. They may be kidnapped by civil powers or by organized crime. They may be lured into a closed system such as both classical and modern Chinese officialdom (i.e. as mandarins, in that case by examinations), and thereafter kept in a cage to service some elite. There are a myriad of other traps and lures to have the competent do what others lack the wherewithal to manage.


The utopian ideal of a “best society”, the kind fantasized in religions, ideologies and political election speeches, might be one where there is a free market to trade competence, a market constrained only by restrictions on intent to harm others, and leavened by values of trust, goodwill and generosity. It would be a market where every person was at liberty to maximise their own competence, and where their abilities attracted real respect, not simply according to their wealth or power.


We know of course that 'best societies' do not exist, even as we strive for them. In the meantime, and here's the rub, we have to deal with societies where the intent to harm others, physically or psychologically, is not only permitted but mandated in many forms. We have do deal with, and in, societies where conformity is imposed and propagandized for the purpose of keeping in power individuals and groups whose main nourishment is an addiction to the narcotic of power, however ruthlessly obtained and exercised. We have to deal with the world as we find it.


In dealing with the daily world, yet remaining true to our objective of valuing competence, it may well happen that we have to break this 'rule' or that. A strict adherence to prescribed methods may lead to incompetent outcomes. The judgement is not an easy one, and never has been. As the old saying has it, 'laws are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men'. Rules though are human creations, somebody's tool for enforcing their idea of a desirable reality.


In 1987 I had just arrived as a new university lecturer in the small island state of Fiji when the military leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, walked into parliament and announced the end of democracy. "Accept the new reality", he advised, "go home". Well, not so quickly mister. There are times when we have to make our realities, or try to, and break some rules if necessary, even at risk. Rabuka himself had done just that.

Often it is not the codified laws, or the dictats of coup leaders, that are most difficult to accept or reject sensibly.


More often we are entangled by those invisible bands of steel, the unspoken rules of behaviour that define ideas about what is 'right' and 'wrong' in every culture, or what works and what doesn't. It is our unexamined assumptions about accepted wisdom which bind us. Indeed, life is even harder than that. Above all, none of us now lives in a single culture. We switch roles. We are workers and investors, tourists and hosts, drivers, customers, voters, parents and students, who knows what else ... all at once. In some roles we feel personally competent and in some we do not. We travel in concentric as well as intersecting bands of cultures where black and white shift with the speed of a moving spotlight.


There may be times when the whole show falls apart. We get it wrong. Maybe an entire society gets it wrong. Spin fails. Confidence is lost, and we can't buy it back with a fist full of dollars. The chasm beckons. Then what? Our ancestors have been here before. Fighting paralysis and fear, instinctively we look around for the master of a weapon in which we can trust, a light sword of the imagination. Charlatans may step forth, magicians, peddlers of faith and holy bones, populists and wannabe dictators. In the end, if our instincts serve us right, we will look for guidance to the teacher who offers competence and goodwill, for these are the skills and qualities we need so desperately to rebuild again in our own minds.



Bruch, Heike & Sumantra Goshal (2004) A Bias for Action. Harvard Business Press. Summarized online by Cyril Pereira in the Asia Sentinel, 21 February 2012 : “Only 10% of managers effective? What a shock!” at

Gary Null PhD, Carolyn Dean MD ND, Martin Feldman MD, Debora Rasio MD, Dorothy Smith PhD (2003) Death by Medicine. A three part report online at . Based on Kohn L, ed, Corrigan J, ed, Donaldson M, ed. (1999) To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1999



Bio: Thorold (Thor) May has taught English language and Linguistics in Australia, Oceania and East Asia for thirty-five years. His interests extend well beyond academic linguistics and teaching however. He has a special fascination with the dynamics of social change. His doctoral dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Many of its conclusions were extensible to knowledge worker productivity in general.


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The Contest for Competence " © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013