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Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It)

March 15, 2019


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic's HBR article, "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?" has become one of the most read in recent years. There is a reason for that, and an answer to the question he poses.

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It) by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Harvard Business Review Press, March 2019, ISBN

Say what you want about Hillary Clinton (or better yet, at this point, maybe just keep it to yourself, or perhaps journal your thoughts), she was arguably, on paper, the most qualified candidate for President of the United States in our 243-year experiment in self-governance. The other candidate, Donald J. Trump, had never held a position in government, operated mostly in the opaque, deal making world of New York City real estate, ran a casino business that declared bankruptcy three times, and had a long stint on reality television in which his primary shtick was firing people. But he was, I don’t know… confident? Guess who got the job.

It was an outcome indicative of the overall landscape. And it’s not because men are doing such a bang-up job of leading organizations and institutions—unless we mean that the general morale and performance of the companies they lead are getting more than a bit banged-up. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic not only addresses that question in his new book, he made it the book’s title: Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

Consider this. According to Gallup:


75 percent of people quit their jobs because of their direct line manager [and] 65 percent of Americans say they would rather change their boss than get a pay raise.


That response is shortsighted, Chamorro-Premuzic laments, in that it “fails to recognize that the next boss might not be any better, but worse.”

Meanwhile, among S&P 500 companies in 2017, women made up:


44 percent of the workforce

36 percent of first-line and midlevel managers

25 percent of senior leaders and executives

20 percent of board members

6 percent of CEOs


The question the book’s title posits shouldn’t be surprising in light of those numbers. What if, rather than the many barriers women face, the “bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men?”


This book explores a central question: What if these two observations—that most leaders are bad and that most leaders are male—are causally linked?


Indeed, in terms of financial performance, a recent article by Lizzy Gurdas points out that “Less than 5 percent of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are women, but records show that most of them beat the index during their tenures.” It may be that women leaders are better simply because they face more obstacles to senior leadership, and only the very best make it. But, even if that is true, it suggests we should raise standards when we select men, and put more obstacles in their way. Or, rather, that we should reconsider how we evaluate leadership potential and promote people into leadership positions. And that comes with a lot of psychological baggage, because men and women aren’t currently rewarded equally for the same exact behaviors. For instance, women don’t act as confident as men because they don’t derive the same benefit from it. They are, in fact, often penalized for it, because it doesn't fit gender stereotypes, while even incompetent men are routinely awarded for overt, external displays of confidence. Yet, when it comes to what we expect from our leaders, and believe to be key leadership traits, “confidence” is at the very top of the list. That is problematic for many reasons, one being that:


Although confidence is an internal belief, it also has an external side, which concerns how assertive you seem in the eyes of others. This external side of confidence is the most consequential because it is often mistaken for real competence.


Admitting you don’t know everything is a commendable leadership quality. But being secure enough to admit you don’t have all the information, let alone all the answers—let alone proposing that you yourself are the answer—can make you seem uncertain, even if you are actually more confident in yourself than someone who projects confidence to mask a raging insecurity within.  

Confidence in yourself is a good thing, when it matches reality and one’s abilities. It can be destructive when it does not.


When competent individuals lack confidence, they will prepare more, act with caution, and become more aware of potential risks and obstacles. When confident people lack competence, their best bet is to hide it from others.


The thing is, multiple studies of confidence have found that women are just as internally confident as men. They just don’t project it, perhaps because they have been socialized not to “because high confidence does not fit our gender stereotypes” of women. We know that women are less likely to speak up in meetings or in the classroom, and less likely than men to apply for a job or ask for a promotion if they can’t tick off each bullet point of qualifications. If they are just as internally confident, how does that happen? Chamorro-Premuzic has a suggestion:


If the answer is not how women feel internally, it must be how they are perceived externally. In other words, differences in behavior arise not because of differences in how men and women are, but in how men and women are treated. This is what the evidence shows: women are less likely to get useful feedback, their mistakes are judged more harshly and remembered longer, their behavior is scrutinized more carefully, and their colleagues are less likely to share vital information with them. When women speak, they’re more likely to be interrupted or ignored.


Beyond turning to those who seem confident, whether that confidence is warranted or not we also tend to gravitate toward more charismatic leaders. And yet, Chamorro-Premuzic cites Jim Collins, who found in his research that the best CEOs—based on market performance—“were not charismatic but were remarkably persistent and humble.” He also cites research from Brad Owens, David Hekman, Margarita Mayo, and others that show that humble leadership has a cascade effect in organizations and in the world around them, enhancing selflessness and collaboration. Yet we still identify overt displays of confidence and charisma as primary ingredients of leadership—and do so across cultures.

To examine the actual differences between men and women, he turns to psychologist Janet Shelby Hyde, whose meta-analysis of data from millions of people going back decades produced what Chamorro-Premuzic calls “the go-to resource for anyone interested in accessing the most reliable evidence on how men and women differ.” And it turns out, the differences aren’t all that great. There is no real difference in IQ, for instance, or in 78 percent of other traits. And, in the 22 percent of cases in which men exceed women—including throwing ability, favorable views of casual sex, and how frequently they masturbate—men don’t really hold any real leadership advantage:


[U]nless you work in a very unusual industry, a leadership position at your organization probably does not require a leader to be especially good at throwing things, having casual sex, or self-pleasure.


Where differences in leadership and management qualities are concerned, women tend to be at a distinct and discernible advantage. "For instance," the author lays out evidence that "women have slightly higher leadership potential in that they generally perform better in management and leadership roles than men do" And, in vocational interests, “women’s preference for working with people and men’s preference for working with things” means women are more naturally inclined to be more conscientious leaders of other people. Their higher rates of emotional intelligence also drive more “transformational leadership, personal effectiveness, and self-awareness.” Empathy is also another increasingly recognized and important leadership ability, and another in which women tend to exceed men in. Indeed, as AI and automation take over more technical tasks, these prosocial skills become even more important in our leaders. (It should be noted here that emotional intelligence is a learnable skill, and there are ways to build one’s empathy, but as long as men are rewarded with promotions and higher salaries for lacking these abilities, why would they feel the need to develop them?)

Even basic self-control is displayed higher in women from an early age (“not least because girls and women have less license to be themselves than men do,” the author suggests), which “is an important antidote to abuses of power and other toxic behaviors.” The only thing I might disagree with in that is that I am not that sure it is more license to be themselves that leads boys and men to be less in control of themselves, but rather how they are socialized—that is, to be less in touch with their feelings, and to tamp them down. “Boys don’t cry,” after all, right?

And while none of those great leadership qualities are as likely to be rewarded as confidence and charisma, there are a number of truly harmful personality traits—particularly narcissism and psychopathy—that are rewarded. Both are “traits more common among leaders than in the normal population,” and it’s not because they make people better leaders. As you may have guessed, men are also much more likely than women to suffer from these personality traits—almost 40 percent more likely to suffer from clinical narcissism, and three times more likely to be (literally) a psychopath. That said, studies have shown that women are narrowing the gap and becoming more narcissistic in the past few decades.


This change reaffirms the danger of encouraging women to lean in or act more like men to climb the corporate ladder.


And this is yet another in a long list of reasons why systematic change—in the way we structure organizations and lead them—is more important to push than individual change. And there are a number of ways to begin making that change today. Chamorro-Premuzic echoes Henry Mintzberg’s advice in Bedtime Stories for Managers that interviewing a leader’s current and previous employees is far more useful than interviewing the leader themselves, and stresses how important it is to conduct dispassionate structured interviews when you do interview the candidates themselves—with more technical, predetermined questions asked equally of every candidate in the same order, and a predetermined method for analyzing their answers—to avoid the subjectivity and bias that gets unconsciously activated in more freewheeling, unstructured interviews.

He shares research and evidence that strongly suggests leadership development programs (which companies spend hundreds of billions of dollars on annually) don’t work, while well-designed, one-on-one coaching programs do—boosting executives’ emotional intelligence by 25 percent, on average. But the answer to the book’s fundamental question of why so many incompetent men become leaders is, ultimately, that we haven’t been clear enough on what leadership qualities we should be looking for and promoting—even as there is a wealth of research and evidence of which really are best. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s solution for that isn’t to focus on gender representation in leadership. After all, diversity programs are already widespread in corporate America. The problem is that those programs “primarily aim to help women emulate men.” Rather, looking at the leadership qualities we are promoting will “create the collateral benefit of boosting the proportion of women in leadership.” It will also help improve the quality of men in leadership roles. It’s not a win-win, because toxic individuals and cultures will lose, but it will hopefully mean that more people will be confident and cared for at work.

Right now, we live in a paradigm that benefits and privileges narcissistic, psychopathic men overqualified, competent women. Is that really the best we can do? It is a bias embedded into our organizations and institutions, in our economic system, and in the ethos of our politics. We need to flip the script, and upend that paradigm. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has something to add to that conversation.

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