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The Next Faithful Step

Temporary Incompetence

Scott Cormode, Fuller Theological Seminary

Almost every study of ministers who have had a long-term effect notes at some point that the best religious leaders are always life-long learners.  And Max De Pree explains why they need to keep learning.  He notes that every leader periodically experiences what he calls “temporary incompetence.”  This happens most frequently when a person is promoted to a new position or encounters an unfamiliar situation.  In such a moment, the person inevitably experiences “the kind of awkwardness that always comes before deeper understanding.”

Have you ever felt that awkwardness?  Have you found that the skills that made you successful in one ministry setting are not the ones you need for your new call?  Have you ever started a new job, taken up a new ministry, or began a new course of study?  Have you ever felt that trickle of sweat when someone asks you to do something you have never done before or that moment of invigorating uneasiness that comes when you realize that God has led you to a place that you have never been before?  DePree concludes that the only appropriate response to such temporary incompetence is to say, “Good grief, have I got a lot to learn now!”1

A little background about Max De Pree may help understand the power behind that statement. When De Pree wrote that statement, he was president of the Herman Miller Company.  If anyone could be prepared to be president, it would be Max De Pree.  His father (DJ De Pree) founded the company, and eventually handed the company to Max’s older brother, Hugh.  Max learned from his father and then from his brother before becoming president.  If anyone could have skipped temporary incompetence, it would be Max De Pree.  He was raised in the company. When he took over a job, he likely knew the person who had the position before him.  Dinner table conversation at holidays likely centered on the company.  He was prepared informally and formally far more than I have ever been prepared for any job that I took.  And he would have had every right to step into positions with a sense of certainty.  But that is not what he did.

He understood that each new situation changes the configuration of relationships.  He might have known every person in the executive suite and they may well have known him.  But he never knew them as president. And that perspective changed everything.  Likewise, a Christian leader might say, “I’ve been in churches all my life; I know what it takes to lead God’s People.” But that would be like Max De Pree saying, “I have been a part of Herman Miller Company all my life; I have nothing to learn once I become president.”  In both cases, the new situation changes the configuration of relationships and it changes the perspective of the leader.  And De Pree’s wise counsel is that the only appropriate response to such a change in configuration is to take a big gulp and focus of what the leader has to learn.

The renowned Harvard scholar Chris Argyris describes another kind of incompetence.  He says that experienced leaders often ignore De Pree’s advice.  Instead of admitting that they have a lot to learn, they use their strengths to hide their weaknesses. He calls this behavior “skilled incompetence.”2  Skilled incompetence becomes a problem when leaders encounter situations that intimidate them; they pretend that trickle of sweat teaches them nothing.  Instead of taking De Pree’s big gulp and focusing on what they need to learn, these skilled leaders hide their weaknesses and hope no one will notice the places where they are unprepared.  And they learn nothing.  The difference between De Pree’s courageous leaders and Argyris’ frightened ones is not apparent in the first few months.  Both are still groping at first to find their way.  The difference comes six months down the line.  De Pree’s leaders have embraced their weaknesses and learned to overcome them, while Argyris’ people are still working so hard to cover their failings that they are not yet prepared to lead.

Throughout your life, you will find yourself in new situations—a new job, a new ministry, or a new class. You will find yourself in new relationships – say, you have a new boss or a new assistant, a new boyfriend or a new wife, or perhaps even a new child.  And you will find that old situations sometimes change enough that they are transformed – perhaps, your friend gets married, your body gets injured, or your toddler becomes a teenager.  In each of these situations, you are likely to find that you are incompetent to handle the situation.  You need to learn and grow.  And the measure of your competence will not be whether you can adapt on the first day.  The measure is whether or not you can face your weaknesses and find a way to learn over time.

When life asks you to grow, you have two choices.  You can embrace your temporary incompetence and overcome it.  Or you can get so skilled at being incompetent that you stop even seeing that you are not making the grade.  If you pretend that you have nothing to learn, then you will learn nothing.


1 Max DePree, Leadership Jazz (New York: Dell Publishing, 1992) 43, 44.

2 Chris Argyris, “Skilled Incompetence,” Harvard Business Review (September-October 1986) 2-7.