The Three Dimensions of Competency

Dead-simple calculus that the Army taught me about leadership and evaluating others (and myself)

It comes down to this simple equation, and everyone and every team has a resulting number:

Competency = Initiative × Skill × Will


Boolean, binary. True or false, 1 or 0. It’s not fixed in stone, but for the foreseeable present, you simply have it or you don’t.

There are two types of soldiers. State-side, you can tell them apart by asking them to clean up some leftover brass (bullet cartridges) at the other end of the firing range.

Solider A: walks to the end, picks it up, walks back, and reports to you that the task is done.

Soldier B: walks to the end of the range, picks it up, picks up every piece of brass that Soldier A completely and neglectfully walked passed, walks back, and asks, “what’s next?”

In war, the telling conversation is quite different, and clearly, the stakes are much higher.

“Take that house, secure the rooftop, and provide overwatch on 2nd squad.”

Soldier A:

  • “Which door do I breach?”
  • “Which direction is 2nd squad going in?”
  • “What are my left and right limits?”
  • “What do I tell the residents?”
  • “How long do we stay there for?”
  • “How many soldiers do I leave with the humvees?”

Fuck that noise. You don’t have time for that shit.

Soldier B: “Moving. Let’s go, 1st squad. Follow me.”

There are those who can deliver, and those who fall flat. When it comes to initiative, it makes a black-and-white difference between competence and incompetence.

This is a 1 or 0 multiplier.


For soldiers, this is physical fitness, marksmanship, technical knowledge, and tactics, to name a few. It’s the level of craft mastery with which you wield your tools.

It’s certainly not fixed. With drill, mentorship, and leadership, skill can certainly be improved. Even more importantly, it’s expected to.

I’ve always been a fan of the mantra, “hire on potential, fire on performance.” It has never failed me. Skill comes into play, here. Performance is an indicator of current skill. Potential is the slope: the rate of improvement (or atrophy). Dead-simple and obvious, but often over-looked.

There are no concrete numbers for these values. Being able to gauge and evaluate others’ skill is a skill itself, and it’s more art than science.


Marine 1stSgt. Brad Kasal, fantastic story of a selfless leader and Marine with the will and courage to fight. Even while injured, he’s still holding a pistol, ready to fight.

If I had to pick between skill and will, will would win every time.

Will is resilience and integrity. It’s the drive to take the hard rights over the easy wrongs. It’s the resoluteness to sacrifice now, for ensured success later. It’s the composure and fortitude to withstand stress and pressure, under the most grueling circumstances. It’s raw determination and stamina, and at times, stubbornness. Will is Marine 1stSgt. Brad Kasal, who refused to give up. Will is in the underdog that believes failure is impossible, when he or she says:

“I will outsmart them. If I can’t do that, I will outwork and outfight them. Failing that, I’ll outlearn them until I can do one of the former. If that fails, I will fucking outcare them and WILL success into existence. I will not and cannot fail.”

You need that person on your team. Even if they lack in skill, you can have confidence that even through brute force and repetition, they will find a way through the hardest of tasks.


These dimensions are multiplicative, not additive:

Competency = Initiative × Skill × Will

Strength in one dimension can make up for shortcomings in others, but a complete lack of one dimension is sure to produce failure. People who excel at all three are orders of magnitude better than their peers.

When you have your team—whether it be an infantry squad, a business unit, or a startup—the hard part is evaluating their initiative, skill, and will. Once you have that, what to give them is easy:

No initiative: a ticket home.

Low skill, low will: purpose and direction.

High skill, low will: motivation and leadership.

Low skill, high will: training and development.

High skill, high will: a battlefield… and getting the hell out of their way.

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