Competence Beats Confidence

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Image by Matheus-Ferrero @

Marvin was the best street fighter I’ve ever seen. The crazy thing is, you would never pick him out of a crowd as the top slugger.

In fact, time and again, I watched bullies target him for harassment or a beating. It never ended well for the bully.

Marvin was not very tall at about 5’8”. His weight was average. He usually sported a small paunchy beer belly, but he wasn’t heavy. He wasn’t muscular either. To top it off, he was cross-eyed and usually wore bottle-thick corrective glasses. When he was excited or nervous, he also tended to lisp and spit a little when he talked.

If you were a human predator, this is precisely the guy you would target as the weakest of the herd.

Marvin and I attended the same private military college. Our corps of cadets was organized into companies: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and so on. We belonged to Charlie Company. Every company had a mascot. There were the Alpha Alligators, the Delta Dogs, etc. Our mascot was the Grim Reaper, or as we called him, Charlie Reaper. We did our best to live up to our dark and fearsome avatar.

There were lots of tough people at our school. There were many big Irish Catholic brawlers from the streets of Boston, rednecks from the backwoods of Maine, and French Canadian hockey players known for a special kind of jovial cruelty.

There were combat-ready women who would give Chuck Norris nightmares. There were sports heroes and future special operators practicing fourteen ways to kill you with a spoon, but Marvin was the undisputed fisticuffs master.

In those days at our fine institution, your company was your family. Think of it like a fraternity, but with much more brutal hazing and populated entirely by trained soldiers. Rivalry between companies was intense and often violent. It was kind of like Hogwarts with combat boots and lots of whiskey. Good times, if that’s your thing.

People in our company sometimes teased Marvin, but he was our brother and my friend. And if there was one rule above all others, it was that you defended your brothers and sisters from any threat and at any cost.

Like the neighborhood I grew up in, my brothers could tease me, but justice would swiftly descend on anyone else who did so.

Early in our not-so-scholarly careers, a bunch of us from Charlie company were at a party. It was getting late and like most parties back then, things often took a turn for the ugly and violent at that point. We were preparing to leave.

A big guy in the crowd from another company starting mocking Marvin. It was easy to do and didn’t take a lot of creativity. A drunken moron could, and frequently did, mock his looks and the way he talked.

Marvin tried to ignore the guy and brushed him off a few times. The beer-soaked idiot got more aggressive and started moving toward Marvin. Several of us stepped between them, figuring Marvin was going to need defending on a regular basis. Marvin put a hand on one of our shoulders, took a few steps forward and calmly said, “It’s okay guys.” At just that moment, the other guy took a swing.

Marvin neatly ducked that punch. We then watched in shock as Marvin proceeded to utterly dismantle the dude.

It wasn’t even really a fight. It was more like a controlled demolition.

The other guy seemed to be in slow motion, while Marvin was a blur of street-boxing precision. In less than a minute, a guy twice his size was on the ground with one hand up begging for mercy.

Marvin granted the mercy. He didn’t gloat or posture. He wasn’t even breathing hard. He just turned to us and said, “Alright, let’s get out of here.” We stood frozen, mouths agape in astonishment as he walked out the door like an action hero.

Word spread fast. Very few people picked fights with Marvin after that and he never started one. Many times, when someone started to tease him, someone else would quickly intervene with a subtle warning not to push things too far.

Two years later, a tall, lanky, and well-muscled guy that looked exactly like Michael Spinks in his prime decided to knowingly test Marvin on the central parade ground. Even though the guy was a kind of a jerk, I repeatedly warned him to walk away. He didn’t listen. More than a hundred cadets watched-on as Marvin took him to school like Tyson.

There are some people you just don’t fight. Marvin was one of them.

What does all of this have to do with leading conflict? Well, a few things…

1. If you see a short cross-eyed guy with thick glasses at a bar or a hockey game, it might be Marvin. Don’t fight him.

2. It doesn’t matter how confident you are, it’s competence that matters. I learned this from the great boxing coach and former heavyweight fighter, Martin Snow, owner of the superb and utterly insane Trinity Boxing Club in Manhattan. Lots of confident guys challenged Marvin. They quickly found out how much actual competence they lacked. The reality was, it made complete sense that Marvin was a skilled fighter. He had been teased from the moment he was born. Instead of running and hiding his whole life, he decided to work hard to learn how to defend himself. When other kids were out partying and dating, Marvin was sweating it out in the gym and learning how to fight. He was also an accomplished wrestler. Most guys just want to look tough, not be tough. They workout so they sport big biceps and pecs. Marvin purposely and patiently taught himself how to fight, not just look like he knew how to fight. In the workplace, many leaders simply like what comes with being in charge: the desk, office, title, and other trappings. However, you cannot fake actual skill when leading conflict. The development of exp