Ability Versus Capability

Sports fans (or more accurately, fanatics) are in the midst of desperate times. It happens every summer.  No football until September. No basketball or hockey until October. The World Cup is almost over and it’s way too early to get overly excited about baseball.

So, unless tennis and/or golf can pull you through, mid-June to late August are character building months for athletic-supporting couch potatoes of all shapes, sizes and ages. Thank heavens (heavy dose of sarcasm) the sports marketing types recognized this problem, put their heads together a few years ago and figured out a way to make draft days so compelling.

Draft day is irrefutable proof that millions of former high school athletes are afraid to turn off ESPN and go outside on their own for a while. And, draft day is a complete and total misnomer. It’s more like draft year. There are personalities on every form of media that tell us 24/7 and 365 which 20-year-old phenom is a lock to be the next big thing. They use sophisticated analytics, intuition and unnamed sources to tell anyone that will listen who is going to go where, how much they are going to make and the immediate impact that draftee will have for the team that is lucky enough to get them.

Sadly (but predictably), here is the outcome of every draft, every year:

  • There is a representative sample of “can’t miss prospects that don’t (high draft picks that meet or exceed all the lofty expectations)
  • There is a much higher sample of “can’t miss prospects that not only miss, but miss badly (they are impulsively thrust into situations they can’t handle, fail and never recover)
  • There is a representative sample of prospects few people even knew that wind up exceeding all expectations and, in some cases, dominating their chosen profession (e.g., Tom Brady)

What does all of that tell us? In sports, as in virtually all aspects of life, there is a profound distinction between ability and capability.

Ability Versus Capability

Confusing capability with ability is a common challenge for leaders at all levels and across all industries.  When those leaders prematurely empower employees with the potential to perform, in circumstances that call for skill, the resultant effect is every bit as predictable as the list of “can’t miss” prospects, in the sport of your choosing, that were asked to do too much, too soon.

What Is Ability?

Ability is operationally defined as task specific knowledge, experience and skill. It is an assessment that speaks to the “here and now.” Is the individual in question, for the task identified, currently performing at a sustained and acceptable level?

Stated a different way and in the context of the analogy provided, which quarterback currently playing in the NFL would you choose to lead your team if they were trailing by five points on the last drive of the Super Bowl? The answer might not be Tom Brady, but he would certainly be on an objective short list of viable contenders.

What Is Capability?

Capability is defined as potential. It is possible, or even probable, that something might happen at some point in the future as long as a number of pieces fall into place to effectively mold that raw talent along the way.

Capability is the hypothetical that generates the euphoria associated with draft day

The Difference Between Ability and Capability

In short, ability has to do with the here and now while capability has to do with potential.


  1. Consider the associates that report directly to you that are currently empowered to perform any number of tasks or activities
    1. Are they currently performing to a sustained and acceptable level?
      1. If “yes,” continue with that approach.
      2. If “no,” consider an alternative approach (e.g., collaboration and/or increased structure).