Confidence and Competence

I am a sports fan, and so I was excited to watch the recent Super Bowl. The game could not have been more dramatic and will likely go down in the annals of sports history as one of the most thrilling. Whenever the Super Bowl comes around, you can be sure that you will see articles in newspapers or magazines as well as television programs that examine great games or moments in Super Bowl history.  The game is a showcase of the abilities of superb athletes. Frequently, the quarterback or the coach for each team is a focal point for their competence and confidence. This is crucial to success in the big game because the members of football teams, like any organization, will be no more confident than those leading them.

The relationship between these two variables was illustrated in one of the most memorable Super Bowls. It was 1969 and the heavy underdog American Football League (AFL) champion New York Jets would face the veteran National Football League (NFL) champion Baltimore Colts in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.  The Colts had compiled a 13-1 record throughout the season and crushed the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the league championship game. The Jets had finished the season 11-3 and defeated the Oakland Raiders in a close game 27-23 to win the AFL title.

Three days before the big game Jets quarterback Joe Namath made an appearance at the Miami Touchdown Club.  Namath brashly “guaranteed” that the Jets would be victorious. He later said he made the statement because he was tired of hearing from the media about what the Colts were going to do to the Jets.

The next day Namath got a tongue lashing from Jet’s Coach Weeb Ewbank.  A visibly angry Ewbank asked Namath if he realized that he had given the Colts’ coaching staff ammunition and “something to put on their bulletin board in the lockeroom.” Namath told his coach that it was his fault since he had given him the confidence to believe the Jets could win. Namath led the Jets to victory 16-7, and they were the first AFL team to win a Super Bowl. Namath was named the game’s most valuable player.

This story provides a number of lessons for leaders when dealing with these two important variables: confidence and competence. In their own development, leaders must continually work to enhance their competence through professional development. No one will follow someone they believe to be incompetent, and this demands life-long learning. Ewbank and Namath had worked hard throughout their professional careers to sharpen their skills for this big moment for their organization. They were also confident and talked to the Jets team about the confidence they had in them. They clearly understood that the members of any team might reach the leader’s level of optimism, but they would rarely exceed it.

Finally, leaders need to carefully “mind the gap” in their organization and consider the relationship between these two variables in the development of individual team members. Those who show high levels of competence but lack confidence need to be encouraged. But occasionally the leader may discover someone whose confidence far exceeds his/her competence. This can be dangerous for both the individual and the team. It may require solid immediate counseling or during performance appraisals as well as additional professional development to close the gap. Joe Namath’s name will go down in the history of Super Bowls because despite what appeared to be brash overconfidence off the field was matched with competence on the field.