Professor on why so many ‘incompetent men’ end up in leadership positions

You probably haven’t had just one incompetent male boss – chances are, you’ve had several. Meanwhile, there’s the woman in every department who works hard, keeps her head down, but just can’t get a promotion.

But instead of over-examining the reasons why women have trouble getting ahead professionally, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic – a professor of business psychology at the University of College London and  Columbia University – turned the conundrum on its head and looked at why so many average, to downright incompetent, men get promoted into positions of leadership as if it’s their birthright.

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His new book is called Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). In it, he argues that women at the top tend to outperform men, explains the myth of charisma, and how there should be more professional obstacles for men, not fewer.

Chamorro-Premuzic spoke with Ladders about some of the book’s themes.

You wrote that the way we see leaders is flawed.

“[We live] In an age where leadership is quite complex, abstract, hard for the average employee or voter to judge. We focus on what we can see and what we can see is confidence rather than competence. Charisma rather than humility. And narcissism rather than integrity. In all those three qualities, men over-index compared to women. They are not substantial differences, but they aggregate. On average, we mistake masculine qualities with leadership potential and therefore in effect, men get rewarded for these things that don’t really contribute to leadership effectiveness, but they seduce us.

They are the traits that seduce people, and that’s why men, one of the reasons why men get to the top quicker than women, more often than women.

When women display these features, which is less frequently, we actually don’t celebrate them as much. We don’t like women who display a lot of confidence, who display charisma-like behaviors, and we don’t parade them when they are narcissistic.”

You wrote about the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men. How so?

“There are other ranges or a series of obstacles that should be in place – but are not – for men. They have to do with behaviors like taking credit for other people’s achievements, blaming others for their own mistakes. When most decision makers are male, it is natural that they will prefer to deal with males and hire males because people hire in their own image. That in itself is a narcissistic tendency.

You like those who look like you because it’s a socially acceptable way of loving yourself. And I’m not saying that why there is sexism in society or the glass ceiling don’t play a role, it all plays a role, but historically people have not emphasized enough how much these personality characteristics influence our choices of leaders without really driving effectiveness.”

“It’s because we have an inability to actually detect or judge actual competence well. Charisma is like the power of brands. When you don’t know much about a product – it could be a handbag, a restaurant, music, a movie – you just default on the big brands. ‘Okay, I will trust this because I can see that it’s a recognizable brand.’

Charisma is something that we instantly attribute to others. Most of the factors that predict charisma, whether people are seen as charismatic, have nothing to do with leadership potential. They have to do with whether people are attractive, whether they are powerful, whether they display some superficial social skills like making eye contact or using the right kind of body language, so they seem to have a presence.

So we default on that because it’s very easy to judge and in a way we’re lazy but we’re also aware of the complexities of actually focusing on leadership potential. Today, most people pick a president based on who they would rather have a beer with.

The alternative is to actually sit down, do a lot of work, and try to really think about who has the best plan, who can manage others, who is most knowledgeable, what are the policies they propose and all that is very complex and we just want to watch TV and keep up with the Kardashians.”

You wrote that among leaders, the women generally outperform men. How?

“The data on this comes from studies that look at how leaders affect their teams and particularly what impact different leaders have on the performance of their teams. The leadership style that helps teams or followers the most is transformational leadership. It’s a leadership style that is based not on having power and authoritarian or authoritative command but on establishing a connection with your followers, where they trust you and you’re able to persuade them to align their values and attitudes with you. More often than not, this style is displayed by women.

Conversely, men tend to display more absentee leadership, which means they basically don’t manage. They leave teams without direction, without guidance and they are busy, presumably politicking or managing up rather than down or when they are more hands-on in their leadership style, they are more often autocratic or authoritarian, dictatorial. So several stories have shown that women tend to have teams that are more engaged, so they are more enthusiastic. Morale is higher in teams managed by women and that even by kind of consequential performance indicators like revenues, profits, women tend to surpass men in their performance.

Now a lot of the times the counter-argument is like yeah but that’s just sampling bias because since it’s harder for women to become leaders, those that become leaders are better. The standards are higher, which is possibly true. For example, even if you look at Fortune 500 companies, on average, women have to be more qualified than men to have the same position and much more qualified than men to have the same position and get paid as much. But the solution is not to make it easier for women to become leaders and in effect lower our standards when we select women, but it is to apply the same quality control standards and raise our standards and have better criteria when we select men, so that we’re better able to vet or screen out incompetent male leaders.”

Do you envision any solutions for leaders both male and female in the future?

“First of all, I think it’s important to understand that although gender is correlated with all these things, the issue is really not fundamentally about gender, but it’s about our inability to select on talent or potential …

Instead it’s much easier to select the right people and look for the qualities that make people better leaders. Especially when they don’t usually make people leaders, that is focus on competence, focus on humility, and focus on integrity and if you do that which by the way, some organizations do it more than others and we can see that they are more successful because they have more meritocratic systems, less toxic political cultures, and higher levels of revenue, net promoters score, profitability, etc.

So I think the big challenge is that organizations need to accept that first, they are not as meritocratic as they pretend to be because nepotistic cultures and toxic politics stand in the way of meritocracy and secondly that today you can’t play it by ear. You can’t just trust your instincts and say okay I’m going to interview this person. ‘Oh, great culture fit. I like them. Great. Come in.’ Then simultaneously you’re spending money on conscious bias training. It doesn’t make any sense when there are these conscious biases that eclipse and trump data-driven approaches to talent identification.”

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