Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?


Greed. Ruthlessness. Self-centredness. Traits associated with corporate leadership. But are those qualities the ones required to make you a good leader? Organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic […]

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Greed. Ruthlessness. Self-centredness. Traits associated with corporate leadership. But are those qualities the ones required to make you a good leader?

Organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic believes it is the opposite qualities that are required. The best leaders he argues, are empathetic, humble and act with integrity. And his research has shown women tend to have more of those qualities.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, which has since been adapted into a book, he explained why so many incompetent men become leaders.

His argument is simple: we don’t care about competence as much as we think we do, and we are easily seduced by features we interpret as strength but that actually represent managerial incompetence. We see someone who is overconfident, reckless, and self-centred and we say “Wow! They are leadership material.”

Before we talk about incompetent leaders, how do you define a competent leader?

To determine whether a leader is competent, look at the impact they have on their teams, organisations, and in the case of politicians, the nations they represent.

The competent leader generates high levels of engagement, trust, productivity and morale. They drive their teams to high levels of performance which means metrics like revenue, profit and customer satisfaction can all be used to determine the effectiveness of the leader. An incompetent leader has the opposite effect.

Competent leaders also tend to have more technical expertise, better people skills, more self-control, more integrity and more stability. They are coachable, receptive to feedback and they want to get better even when they’re already good.

Generally, we don’t want to acknowledge a lack of skills in ourselves. We want to think we’re competent. How do you recognise in yourself that you are missing key skills?

Self-awareness is like a muscle, one that allows leaders to be more effective. People tend to have a predisposition towards it, some more than others. For about 70% of managers, you can assume that with the right feedback, the right incentive and the right tools, you can help them increase their self-awareness.

From the organisation’s perspective, it’s easier to replace the incompetent leader. It will be much more effective than attempting to change somebody’s performance after they’ve been in the job for a while. It’s unlikely they’ll suddenly do a good job if they have already failed to perform.

For some people however, especially if they are self-aware, you can expect improvements of around 30 – 40%. But it would be impossible to coach Donald Trump, for example, because he is uninterested in feedback; he thinks he is the best and has no interest in changing. Then you have leaders that are the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Most people are somewhere in between.

How do you develop your own self-awareness, particularly when starting a business?

It’s crucial to understand what self-awareness is. Many people focus on introspection “I’m going to spend six months in an ashram in India and find myself” but that’s not what self-awareness is about in business.

In business, self-awareness is knowing how you impact others, and how others think of you. If you can develop strategies that enable feedback from others, you will have a more accurate image of yourself. Whether you have a team of two or twenty people, the average impression or reputation they have of you is you for the purposes of work.

Much like giving feedback is an art, obtaining feedback is an art, but there are simple things you can do to increase your self-awareness. For example, you can be more strategic when it comes to obtaining negative or critical feedback from others, particularly if they are your employees. Instead of saying “It was great, wasn’t it?” ask “What do you think I could have done better? Where do you think there are areas for improvement? If you were in my position, how would you have addressed this issue?”

Part of living in a civilized society is that we are incentivized to lie and tell each other what we want to hear, that everything is fine. This makes people, especially managers, deluded. And although you can’t change society, you can prompt the people around you to give helpful, constructive feedback.

That must take a lot of encouragement from the manager, especially if that hasn’t been the culture from the beginning. If your manager suddenly asked you for honest feedback, your natural reaction would be to say everything is fine.

That’s correct. It’s also important to understand there are big cultural differences too. Some cultures are very hierarchical. In China, the idea that an employee can criticize their boss is unthinkable, and no matter how much coaching and training you deliver, it remains an alien concept.

In informal countries, including Britain, Australia and the US, at least superficially, cultures are less hierarchical, and you can use banter or informality to connect with your boss. Although that doesn’t mean that people feel they can honestly criticize their boss.

Only about 5 – 10% of people agree with the statement “I frequently provide my boss with negative feedback on their performance”. The most important thing you can do as a leader is create a climate of psychological safety in your team where those you lead feel the freedom to speak up – even to correct or critique you. It’s the most helpful feedback you will get.

Is part of the skill involved the ability not to take things personally?

To some degree, you’re only going to want to change if staying the same produces a relatively unpleasant sensation. Think of trying to lose weight – it helps to look in the mirror or at the number on the scale and see the reality is not what you want.

Typically, nobody is trained to become a manager. Managers get thrown into management mostly as a reward for their performance as an individual contributor. That doesn’t make sense. Why would you move somebody away from a job they were good at into a managerial position, which they might not even be interested in doing? Then because they have power, people automatically suck up to them, telling them they’re great when they’re not. It is easy to become deluded.

Note the interesting gender distinction at play here. Historically, it is true that, on average, women are more self-critical and insecure. Historically, it’s been viewed as almost a female problem “Poor women! They need to have their ego boosted. They need to be told they’re better than they are. They are so neurotic and insecure.”

In the context of this conversation, that’s an advantage. If you’re less likely to believe your own hype especially when you become a manager or a leader, it immediately makes you more self-aware and coachable.

Even when you’re performing well and achieving results, you’re more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome and think more negatively of yourself than others do. Again, that might not be a very pleasant feeling, but it forces you to get better and is actually very good for the organization, the business and those you work with.

In your book you say traits like confidence and self-absorption in men prompt people to think they are leadership material. But women have those same traits. Why don’t we think the same about them?

This issue is conflated. On one hand, those have always been viewed as more masculine traits. Why? Because we’ve seen them in men more often. Why? There’s a biological basis to men being more impulsive, reward-sensitive, and more impulsive, reward orientated and less concerned by risk.

These predispositions are manifested early in life. I don’t mean that being a boy automatically gives you those traits and being a girl automatically makes you more threat-sensitive, more fearful, and less impulsive. These are differences much like differences in average height, one of the sexes has more of it than the other. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t women who are taller than men and vice versa. But, on average, the differences exist and are then reinforced by society. We celebrate boys for acting like boys; for being brave, aggressive, and self-centred. We celebrate women for behaving in more kind, caring and submissive ways, although these things are changing. In Scandinavia, men and women are more androgynous than ever before. But the differences still exist and shape our expectations.

The most interesting issue is when a woman behaves in submissive, kind, caring, agreeable ways, we accuse her of not ‘leaning in’ because she’s, in effect, not displaying hyper-masculine qualities that we assume are indicative of leadership. But when women do display those qualities, we complain they’re not feminine enough, that they’re a bulldozer, too much like Margaret Thatcher. This is the lose-lose situation in which we put women.

For men, it’s the opposite. Even if their reckless, overconfident, or narcissistic behaviour don’t come across as a sign of competence, we still celebrate it and say, “the more you display these loud characteristics, the stronger you will be as a leader”. It’s possible to see that in our evolutionary history. Leadership was a lot easier to observe when it was about physical strength, courage, speed, about defeating a predator, hunting an animal for food or defending the group.

We have probably inherited these historical criteria, but in our fantasy, we still want to look at someone and when they seem assertive, even despite being unaware of their limitations, we think “this person probably knows what they’re talking about.”

You see it in an everyday work context. If people gather in a group for the first time and men raise their hands to talk, we assume they know what they are talking about because our instinct is to be a little bit more cautious and to worry about failing or doing it wrong. That should be an asset, but it’s treated as a liability.

I was speaking to a reporter who asked, “but who wants to follow a leader who says they don’t know something?” Any rational person! The only true answer to most of the important questions in life and the problems that you’re going to face is ‘I don’t know’. It’s amazing that even in a rational, educated, and self-deprecating society, we assume that if somebody says they don’t know, they should be discarded or eliminated. If our criteria for good leaders include those who always say they know, we’ll end up with a lot of Boris Johnsons and Donald Trumps in charge.

How do we combat this lose-lose situation?

I know this is a slightly utopian and naïve answer, but we need the right goal. There’s no point in being really good at the wrong thing. I’d rather fail at the right task. To me, these questions point to one specific answer – educating decisionmakers about what good leadership is and the consequences of making mistakes in leadership choices. Employers can be very lazy when it comes to monitoring the consequences that their leadership choices have. They need to be quantitative, rigorous, and strict at monitoring how their choices impact others.

In a way, the problem self-corrects. Organizations or teams led by inept leaders will be outperformed by those with better leaders, and that happens even at the top level of organizational units – countries. There is a reason why countries go up and down, whether you measure that by GDP or happiness studies. This is also linked to the competition between different leadership competencies and ideologies around the world, though the timescale for this is very different from a commercial situation.

Fundamentally, decisionmakers and leaders need to understand that it’s hugely consequential whether you put someone in place that has the right qualities or somebody that has the wrong qualities. We are paying lip service to qualities like humility and integrity because we are seduced by charisma and confidence which is what shapes our leadership choices.

There should be no excuse for this. In an age where you have so much information about whether somebody is fit to lead or not, we still want to vote after a 20-minute presidential debate. It doesn’t matter how many fact-checking sites there are or how many fact-rebutting of lies on your Twitter feed, it’s almost like we choose to bury our head in the sand, uninterested in living in an evidence-based world.

But you can forgive the general public for being misled when politics is mostly about lying and misleading these days. But HR professionals or business leaders don’t have that excuse. They have every incentive and resource to vet leaders more effectively.

We should focus on what we can do to help everyone as opposed to what we can do to help the individual female. The ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude doesn’t fix the rules of the game. It just perpetuates it.

How do you avoid being seduced by charisma to hire effectively? How can you establish if a candidate is going to be a good leader?

It’s important to understand that charisma, much like confidence, is irrelevant. There’s no good reason why we’re automatically seduced by these characteristics. It is the same with physical attractiveness. You may say, “Yes, but how can I resist somebody who is physically attractive?” You can, but you need to look further for more relevant data. Someone classically attractive who tortures kittens for a hobby, may not seem as attractive once you have that extra insight into how they live their life. There is nothing wrong with being attractive, but you wouldn’t marry someone without more knowledge about them than that.

Scientific data shows that the best-performing leaders tend to be humble, conscientious and persistent. They’re subject matter experts who are curious, self-critical, and humble. If you accept those parameters, then evaluating them on each of those qualities is not that complicated.

Fundamentally, understand that charisma and confidence don’t matter. When you go into heart surgery, do you care if they have a good sense of humour, if they are attractive, if they are charismatic? Wouldn’t you rather a good heart surgeon?

By the same token, there is logic to picking CEOs or leaders who are more likely to perform well and they are quiet, humble, persistent and competent. Even more so in biotech, where technical expertise is easy to evaluate. Maybe the bigger need is not just who has the credibility from a technical expertise standpoint, but also the people skills.

I’m not saying your CEO shouldn’t be able to sell or deliver an impressive pitch to the market or that charisma is a bad thing. I’m saying charisma is about style, and we need to focus on substance. Charisma is an amplifier; if you’re good, it will make you better; if you’re bad, it will make you worse. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao would have been a lot less destructive had they had no charisma at all.

There’s been a lot of discussion amongst management experts recently about Steve Jobs. A lot of what you’ve said remind me of this debate. Where do you stand on that?

There’s no question that Steve Jobs was an asshole. He was a narcissist, famous for harassment, bullying and intimidation, fired from his own business twice. If, because of that, your conclusion is you should be an asshole, then good luck applying that advice. Where’s the evidence that Steve Jobs would not have been even more successful had he been humble and nice?

Finally, and most importantly, the majority of people, whether business leaders or entrepreneurs who are even 20% as obnoxious as Steve Jobs don’t found the next Apple or Pixar. They are struggling with their careers. It’s like when people say, “Yes, but Einstein wasn’t a good student in school”. Are you trying to say all the lazy students in the world can aspire to winning a Nobel Prize? No!

You mentioned that the skills needed to become a leader are quite different from the skills needed to be a good leader. Is it possible to have both sets of traits?

Absolutely. To be effective, you must emerge. If you don’t emerge as a leader, you can’t be effective.

There are people that have both skillsets necessary. They need to be visible and leaderlike enough to be chosen in the first place, and then they need to be good.

There are of course people who have neither skillset. I’m interested in the people who are one but not the other, the false positives – the incompetent men. The false negatives are not just women with good potential that are overlooked, but also men who have a “feminine” leadership style, overlooked because they don’t act like Donald Trump.

Improving the pipeline of our talent and our succession planning in leadership, whether in small businesses, enterprises, or big organizations is about spotting the hidden gems. I’m trying to highlight what these hidden gems look like. Often, they’re female, but there are also many men in that category, and I don’t think the solution to a world that struggles because it is run by overconfident fools is to make the other half overconfident and deluded. But let’s put these humble, self-critical, competent people in charge.

Let’s remove the large number of quotas that are already assigned to incompetent men because it seems like a big proportion of the leadership roles automatically go to them. Why don’t we eliminate quotas and focus on talent?

If the message is controversial, it’s because it’s painful for organisations, specifically leaders, to accept they’re not as meritocratic as they want to be. Historically, when you talk about gender, it’s always, “Let’s add more women. Why don’t we have more women on your boards?” It’s well-intended, but it can backfire. If men already think that women are inferior and you’re adding measures that are effectively positive discrimination, it will perpetuate their false assumption that men are better leaders.

What I’m suggesting is much more ferocious. The best gender diversity intervention is to focus on talent. Focus on talent and men will need help to be leaders because you will end up with a slightly higher proportion of women than men in leadership roles.

You’ve said that women are punished for displaying traits regarded as central to leadership. How can this be combated on both an organizational and individual level?

Things need to be turned upside down. This is a generalization but if you look at the evidence suggesting that women are more effective leaders than men, often cynics have responded by saying, “That’s a sampling bias. It’s because of the glass ceiling and other forces in place in the organizations that mean as a woman, you have to be much better to actually get leadership roles.”

Therefore, it seems that our selection criteria for women is in good shape. Why don’t we give men the same benefit and put in place those same criteria?

I don’t want to eliminate those attributes because they contribute to making women more effective as leaders. It’s a good filtering mechanism that makes it much harder for incompetent women to become leaders. How about applying those very same criteria to our selection of men instead of giving women the same privileges that men have enjoyed. Men can be offensive, engage in sexist jokes, harassment, bullying, discrimination. They’re forgiven and even celebrated for their mistakes.

The world will not be better off if that becomes our definition of fairness. It should be the other way around. It’s not just about having more women but having more competent leaders and this is the only answer.

From a tactical viewpoint, yes, let’s hold that women who are still humble, altruistic, and competent can learn the trick of the politicking and navigating the dynamics of influence and persuasion in an organization to get noticed.

But I still don’t like that type of advice because it’s pointing the finger at the people who shouldn’t be blamed. We need to look at ourselves. What if we knew how to spot competence? It’s not just having somebody lean in is irrelevant. What if leaning in for a job automatically disqualifies you for the job? If you’re so busy raising your hand, saying, “Me, me, me,” you are probably going to be more narcissistic and less interested in the team. What if self-nomination automatically excluded you from leadership roles?

It’s such a shift in thinking.

It is, but it’s not as crazy it sounds given that we know that even if you’re a first-time supervisor or manager, your job is not to promote upwards or impress your boss. Your job is to be focused on your team and to help them perform.

It’s only natural that the people who are focused on doing their job well are not going to be raising their hand, because it’s a distraction. It’s only logical to say that the people who are really focused on promoting themselves and advancing their career are going to neglect their teams more.

Properly understood, leadership is a fundamental resource for the group. It enables people to work together and achieve something as a team, but the way that it’s been understood in the corporate world is just career success destination. Most people are uninterested in managing teams or helping the organization. They want to earn more. They want a promotion. They want a corner office.

The minute that leadership is equated to personal career advancement and we incentivize people with huge salaries to become leaders, we lose the benefits of a leadership team that serves the business first, and not the other way around.

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