The Care / Competence Matrix: Lessons from the Professor

Foster connection and loyalty by knowing your stuff and showing you care

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My husband (an engineering professor at Ohio State) and I recently discussed why students tend to seek him out frequently for support, advice and counsel. The evidence for this is not only his full schedule, but also attendance at the “first Friday” lunch he holds each month for his students. This voluntary activity, for which the students have to buy their own lunch, is attended by upwards of 20 students each time he offers it. He simply invites any student who is interested to join him for lunch to talk about anything except the class he is teaching.

One night, I scratched out the basis for my hypothesis about why students show up for him on an old receipt laying on the counter.  I told him the answer to why students flock to him was simple – it is because he cares (variable 1). He cares about the students as people and as scholars. He cares about their well being. Combine this with the fact that he is a highly competent, energetic and innovative teacher, and students show up for him (variable 2).

I draw it like this:

How I show up depending on the quadrant that my teacher / leader is in: 

Low Care / Low Competence – Why bother? Why work hard? My leader doesn’t care anyway.

Low Care / High Competence – This person knows their stuff. For that, I’ll do the work, but nothing extra.

High Care / Low Competence – I will try hard because I see how much they care.

High Care / High Competence – I will not only try hard, but also will learn a lot. I’m engaged.

It takes effort to live fully in the upper right quadrant. Many days when my husband comes home and runs down his list of student meetings and requests, I ask him if he really needs to do all of that work. The answer will always be yes. Because he cares.

Here are some secondary lessons I’ve learned from my professor husband:

  • Cheaters never win.
  • Caring does not mean going easy on people. Many times, caring means pushing people farther than they thought they could ever go.
  • Earn the easy points by doing basic things like following directions and being on time.

Small Town Leadership Lesson – This matrix shows up everywhere in our lives. It’s been proven that people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. If you show up to work everyday for someone who not only knows their stuff, but also genuinely cares about you, you are probably going to try your best to perform well in that role. Conversely, if you report to someone who doesn’t show an interest in you personally and hasn’t been able to demonstrate their competence in the job, you will check out pretty quickly.

What quadrant are you living in?

How would making a shift change the way you view your job, education or community?

What other variables would you include in your matrix? 

Who has shown up in the upper right quadrant for you in your life and career?  

This was originally published on the Small Town Leadership blog. If you’d like to receive similar content and join me on the journey to making our BIG world feel like a smaller place, subscribe today at

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