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There is only so much competence a given faction can distribute amongst its membership.

Put practically: If the minions are smart, the boss must be an idiot. If the boss is smart, then his subordinates are stupid.

This is seen mostly in dramatic animated shows and comedy as a kind of counterbalance to keep the overall effectiveness of a faction moderate without being too dangerous or easy. On the comedy side, the inherent inequality and dysfunction of a group with such a large breach in abilities is a comedy goldmine. Expect to see competent leaders ask "Why am I surrounded with incompetents?" and competent underlings to sigh at their boss' stupidity.

In the event everyone in the faction is dumb, they're likely a Goldfish Poop Gang designed to be the Butt Monkey everyone laughs at and maybe sympathizes with a little. In the rare event everyone in it is competent, then they're likely going to be understaffed, the ground level Mooks/Redshirts are less than effectual, or they are disadvantaged in some other way.

If, instead, everybody takes turns being stupid, then they're passing around the Idiot Ball. For extra laughs (or groans) can be overlapped inversely with Distribution of Ninjutsu: the more competent someone is, the weaker they are in combat. Sub-trope of Too Many Cooks Spoil the Soup.

Examples of Conservation of Competence include:

Anime and Manga

  • The Pokémon anime gives us the presumably competent Giovanni, whose subordinates are the one and only Team Rocket Terrible Trio.
    • In all fairness, Jessie, James and Meowth aren't his only operatives. In terms of the trope, this may explain much. Apparently, it's been so long since he actually commanded them, he's completely forgotten about our three lovable losers (at least up until the Best Wishes series).
    • A prime example of this was their second ever onscreen interaction: Jessie and James are trapped on an island (and separated from Meowth and their other Pokémon) with only a payphone as communication. Seeing as they have no money, they decide to collect call their boss. After being greeted by a grumpy Giovanni warning them that whoever is calling better have a good reason for making him spend money on the call, Jessie and James are stupid enough to start reciting their motto. Cue Giovanni hanging up wondering who the hell those idiots were.
  • One Piece: Monkey D. Luffy is easily one of the dumbest members of the crew. On the other hand he is smart enough to collect reasonably talented and intelligent True Companions to offset this.
    • This also goes for the Marines. Genuine competence seems to be a rather rare attribute, whereas the majority of the grunts and officers are of the "RAWR, kill 'em" mindset.
  • Played with in Fullmetal Alchemist. Father is smart, but his minions the homunculi have varying degrees of intelligence - for instance, Lust is smart, Gluttony is an idiot, and Envy and Wrath are mostly smart but sometimes make bad decisions.

Eastern Animation

  • In Pucca, Tobe is a very good ninja and has very good plans sometimes, but he would achieve more alone than with his ninjas.


  • In The Minimum Man by Robert Sheckley a man who is clumsy, accident-prone and generally incompetent is sent to open up a planet for colonization. He is assisted by a robot which does all of the heavy work excellently. During the story, the man (who is away from the public disapproval of the rest of society for the very first time) slowly becomes less clumsy, less accident-prone, and more competent. But he noticed that as he got better, the robot got more clumsy and accident-prone. When he asked about this, his boss cheerfully admitted that this was deliberate on their part, because they could not count on the standard colonist to get better, and they literally and specifically wanted to preserve a level of incompetence across the entire team.

Live Action TV

  • Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake of M*A*S*H would never have gotten by without people like Hawkeye and Radar around.
    • Of course, Blake was actually a highly competent surgeon, he was just a incompetent administrator. Frank Burns, on the other hand...
    • Thoroughly averted when Colonel Potter comes on board.
  • Gilligan's Island. Only one person in any given episode could be competent. Not always the same person, either. Of course if they were competent they'd be off the island. So, yeah.
  • Blair Waldorf and her "merry band of psychos" (her minions, that is) in Gossip Girl. Or as Blair puts it... "Once again the universe has proven that anything you can do, I can do better."
  • Both averted and subverted in The West Wing, where everyone is a genius, but things tend to fall apart rapidly if any one member is incapacitated or missing.
  • This trope goes both ways in various Star Trek shows. The seven or so senior officers of the ship are competent. Above them are Insane Admirals and Obstructive Bureaucrats. Below them are Red Shirts. So there are incompetent leaders and incompetent supporters, with the competent main characters squarely in the middle of the command structure.

Newspaper Comics

  • The Pointy-Haired Boss of Dilbert fame. Though not every engineer *cough*Wally*cough* is completely competent, either.
    • You get the idea that Wally could be competent if he cared. Which he doesn't.
      • It's never been confirmed that he's actually talented, but it is known that when the PHB is briefly taken out by a plane accident (he survived), Wally "discovered [he] likes to work." Guess how long that lasted.
        • It is shown in the Y 2 K episode of the TV show that Wally was once a brilliant programmer before the company broke his spirit, if you consider the TV show part of the canon.
      • Wally is explicitly based on a guy Scott Adams knew who apparently discovered that the company they worked for had a very generous severance package for worthless employees, so he applied more creative effort to qualifying for it than most people do to jobs they've always dreamed of doing. Wally could freaking rule the world if he wanted to; he just doesn't want to.
    • The Pointy-Haired Boss has been wearing the stupid hat for so long that it's now occasionally funny to write a strip where he is the Reasonable Authority Figure plagued by the lazy Wally, the naysaying Dilbert, and the belligerent Alice. They're so used to having to defend themselves this way that they won't listen on the rare occasions when PHB's management perspective makes him right.
      • Also note that his bosses (when we see them) are even dumber.
  • The low-level, minimum wage workers in Retail love pointing out the stupid and/or inane policies made by their bosses.

Video Games

  • Pokémon Diamond and Pearl (and especially Platinum) give us the rather intimidating Cyrus at the head of Team Galactic. His low-level flunkies don't have the slightest idea what the Big Evil Plan even is.
  • Touhou's Sakuya Izayoi, Ninja Maid extraordinaire, has to use her Reality Warper superpowers to turn the Scarlet Devil Mansion Bigger on the Inside, and then single-handedly guard and clean said mansion because, in spite of having a virtually inexaustable army of guards and other maids, they are so universally lazy and incompetent that they are as likely to cause harm as good. Her boss, vampire Ojou Remilia is capable of being competent most of the time, but, being permanently a child, both physically and emotionally, she would rather just play (and force Sakuya to set up those games for her). During Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, she even turns into The Determinator, fighting three conseuctive BossBattles (two were mid-boss battles) in defense of her mistress. What is she paid for this kind of work? She gets a room in the mansion, and to keep the outfit. It ain't easy being Meido.
    • Several similar comparisons could be made to other girls in the touhou fame (Youmu, a samurai whose boss forces her to use her skills as a gardener and ocasionally as a cook, while she, uh... watches a Cherry Tree bloom) as well as the trope still applying but the other way around (Komachi, a slacker God of Death and her Boss Shikieki Yamaxamanadu, who takes her job too seriously; Reisen, who is constantly scolded for her screwups by her master Eirin, who invented ETERNAL LIFE) What really can destroy the trope's validity is when we consider their abilities as Danmaku Boss Fights. While Sakuya can be the perfect maid in her daily life, she still pales in comparison to the bratty child Remilia when it boils down to their world's selected form of fighting. In fact, one could think there's too much competence in every house.
      • If you think about it though, this trope applies when looking at every game in itself. In the aforemented example with with members of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, you have the Baka Cirno, Daiyousei, and Rumia to offset the competence of the others.
  • The higher difficulty settings in Star Wars Battlefront apply this to the side you're playing. The better you do, the dumber your allies get. You can pick off 25% of the enemy forces single-handedly and you can still lose.

Western Animation

  • The adults generally don't have a clue what's going on in the town of South Park. It is always the kids who ultimately end whatever crisis is occurring that week. In the early episodes, competence also extended to Chef, though he was easily Distracted by the Sexy.
  • Duke Igthorne and his ogres in Disney's Gummi Bears. His right-hand ogre, Toadstool, is the smartest of the bunch, and is still barely more intelligent than the furniture.
  • The Monarch and his minions from The Venture Brothers on Adult Swim are a classic example. The minions seem much more savvy than The Monarch himself, and so does The Monarch's girlfriend, Dr. Girlfriend. The Monarch isn't so much incompetent than just obsessed with being Rusty Venture's nemesis above all else.
  • In The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Scratch and Grounder (and sometimes Coconuts, as well) are Dr. Robotnik's incompetent lackeys, who he only keeps around because he's too cheap to build anything more reliable. Of course, Grounder once proved that, were he more intelligent, he could be a far greater threat than his creator. Robotnik himself toyed with this (while usually rather bumbling himself, he often appeared as a Not-So-Harmless Villain whenever his minions put up an exceptionally poor fight against Sonic).
  • In The Dreamstone some of Zordrak and Urpgor's plans may actually work if not for assigning them to Sgt Blob and his men. When Blob's team actually gets something right however, it is usually Urpgor (or in rare cases even Zordrak) that pull the Idiot Ball. Rufus and Amberley started off as more competant heroes to contrast the Urpneys, but eventually evolved into Fools not much more apt than them, making it more a game of fate than skill. Their own master the Dreammaker and the Wuts aren't immune to this, but still noticably more competant than them.

Disney Animated Canon

Disney loves this trope for its villains.

Real Life

  • Oddly enforced in some real military organizations. Everyone in a certain group—usually of a certain rank or graduating class—is rated based on performance, and put in order from best to worst. Now, normally it would seem fairest to award assignments based on merit: the #1 performer gets the job she wants, and the worst performer gets put where no-one else wants to go. This leads to a problem: The place no-one wants to go gets all the bad performers, and then that organization does worse work, leading even fewer people to want to go there, leading to even worse work. To prevent this, the organization distributes its incompetence: the group is split into 3rds: top, bottom, and middle. These are then ranked. The top of each category gets the job they asked for; the bottom of each gets put where they're needed. While it may not be entirely fair to the "middling" performers, this ensures that every organization gets a mix of good and bad people and prevents any one place from having a large group of abysmal performers.