Core Incompetence: The Flip Side of Your Signature Strength
Syndicated from, Sep 25, 2011

4 minute read


Ten minutes before the end of extra time in the 2006 soccer world cup, the French captain Zidane almost broke the Italian player Materazzi’s heart, quite literally, with a head butt on his chest. This is not the first time Zidane has misdirected his energy. He stamped on Saudi Arabia captain Fuad Amin in the 1998 World Cup and was dismissed from the game. In 2000, he head butted Jochen Kientz in the 27th minute. Kientz suffered a concussion and a fractured cheekbone and Zidane received a five-match ban. Zinedine Zidane has always been known for his intensity and the downside of this strength became most evident in the World Cup finals. It is probable that France lost to Italy because they were without their captain and one of the greatest players of the game.

As an executive coach interested in exploring what drives people to successes and failures, I have worked with hundreds of ambitious people including business executives, sports legends and Nobel laureates. One key discovery I made repeatedly over the last fifteen years is that there is a common driver to the successes and failures of the people I studied. I call this driver, the 'Signature Strength’ and its downside, ‘Core Incompetence’.

A signature strength forms in a person when a certain competence matures in a person due to his nature and/or nurture. I found that the initial successes produced by the signature strength make people mistake a particular manifestation of the strength for the strength itself. They then convert that manifestation as a success formula and apply it to all of their goals. When this behavior continues indiscriminately, it spills into all roles and situations resulting in Core Incompetence. In Zidane’s case, perhaps ‘intensity’ is his signature strength and one manifestation of it is an aggressive behavior – when applied at the ball in the game, it helps him to score brilliant goals; when blindly applied on an opponent’s chest, it becomes his Core Incompetence.

So, Core Incompetence is “A blind attachment to and reliance on a particular manifestation of ones signature strength that has brought successes in the past, but is now applied blindly everywhere else.”

Zidane is not alone in displaying Core Incompetence. Steve Jobs’s signature strength is passion. One manifestation of it is creation of products with simplicity, elegance and perfection. It resulted in macs, powerbooks and ipods that won the hearts and customers for Apple. It also made him stand against including a cooling fan in Mac II and network capability in later Macs (he is reported to have thrown a floppy disc at the person who suggested adding network capability and said, “Take it, that is your network”). Apple’s low market share (in earlier days) and over-reliance on innovation to survive could be attributed to a blind compulsion towards simplicity, elegance and perfection.

For Craig Barrett, persistence is his signature strength that turned into blind stubbornness when he stuck to the Itanium chip against his own engineers. It cost Intel billions of dollars and earned the name Itanic.

In the case of San Jose mayor, Ron Gonzales, Phil Yost, an editor of San Jose Mercury News, summarizes nicely in a headline in June, 2006:  Strengths trip up mayor. Analysis: Self Assurance and forceful nature feed unwillingness to take wide-ranging advice.

Everybody has Core Incompetences. If you think you don’t – slow down – and reflect on what your parents or elementary school teachers repeatedly warned you to be watchful about. See whether you still have the same issue, the same ‘hubris’ or ‘Achilles heel’ even now. When your confidence becomes over confidence or sometimes arrogance, you do things that you have done in the past and gotten away with, assuming that the context has not changed. Everybody gets caught sooner or later. It is just a matter of time: Core Incompetence is a ticking behavioral bomb waiting to explode on your face.

The presence of Core Incompetence is not the end of your life. Once you become aware of it and pay attention to it, you can manage your life around it and become successful. One example I can think of is Lance Armstrong.

Growing up in a modest family, determination became his great weapon to rise himself to heights he could not afford. From local bike races leading up stage 18 of Tour de France in 1995, what propelled him was sheer will power and unimaginable hard work (manifestation of determination). Then he got cancer in 1996. Besides teaching him many valuable lessons about the preciousness of life and the nature of human suffering, he says it also provided him the perspective to discover other manifestations of his strength that he never used before in biking: meticulously improving his strategy and technique. Before cancer, he would never allow a competitor to win one of the stages in the race at the cost of draining himself even if it wouldn’t affect his lead. After cancer, he allowed it. He even gave up on wanting to participate and win every bike race and concentrated single-mindedly on the Tour De France (another manifestation of determination). By becoming aware of his Core Incompetence and reinventing his strength in other forms Lance Armstrong was able to win the Tour de France seven consecutive years from 1999 to 2005.

Finally, we cannot pay attention to our Core Incompetence, even if we become aware of it, if we do not have a compelling vision or a larger purpose. Because, without a compelling aspiration, it becomes painful to look at our own Core Incompetence. Only in the context of a larger commitment, can our breakdowns be used to create breakthroughs.

Summarizing, Core Incompetences come out of our signature strengths and not already identified incompetences. Our biggest failures come from our biggest strengths and our biggest lessons and learning potentially come from our biggest failures.


This article is reprinted here with permission from the author. Dr. Prasad Kaipa is a CEO advisor and coach, combining Business, Science & Technology and Spirituality. More from Prasad Kaipa. Previous DailyGood Articles by Prasad Kaipa: Study, Practice and Serve: Dialogue with Peter Senge

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