Trends: D-listers in the C-suite

Despite the title, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s new book is not really anti-men or pro-women. It simply asks the question: Why is incompetent leadership everywhere?

Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. He is one of the most prolific and awarded social scientists of his generation. If you’re a believer in the now conventional wisdom of things like the evidence of positive links between diversity and financial performance or introducing quotas for women in business, you are going to be very challenged by this book.

“While it is certainly a sign of progress that a growing number of organisations are putting in place deliberate interventions to increase the proportion of women in leadership, a more reasonable goal would be to focus instead on selecting better leaders, as this step would also take care of the gender imbalance,” he writes. “Putting more women in leadership roles does not necessarily improve the quality of leadership, whereas putting more talented leaders into leadership roles will increase the representation of women.”

In an explosive essay for Harvard Business Review in 2013, he suggested: “There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass ceiling. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?”

The big picture is that boards and management are unable to detect incompetence in men. The same traits that will accurately predict their failure are mistaken for signs of leadership potential or talent. Men’s character flaws help them emerge as leaders because they are disguised as attractive leadership qualities. Worse, non-technical characteristics make a difference with getting selected for the top job, with both men and women. Tall men and women will do better in promotions. The last time Americans elected a president who was shorter than average was in 1896.

“Traits such as confidence, narcissism, psychopathy, and charisma advance careers without improving the success of the groups they lead,” Chamorro-Premuzic writes.

Confidence is usually mistaken for competence. Conventional wisdom says women lack confidence and hence get passed over for important jobs. The research says the opposite, he writes, “but the researchers also noted that women’s confidence wasn’t always recognised by others. However, when a woman does seem as confident as, or more confident than, men, we are put off by her because high confidence does not fit our gender stereotypes. The truth of the matter is that pretty much men tend to think that they are much smarter than women.

“Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men.”

But are toxic leaders always bad? Using Chamorro-Premuzic’s example of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, I asked him if this isn’t the sort of (dysfunctional) leader you need to break through as a startup in a highly competitive industry? “No, but disruptive toxic leaders over-index in entrepreneurship compared to corporate settings (they are more driven to replace the status quo).”

At the end of the day, Chamorro-Premuzic believes women are better leaders. His favourites include Angela Merkel (“there will probably be no movies made about her”) and Coco Chanel, whose “ambition enabled her to escape from poverty to create one of the most admired luxury brands in history”.

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. (Harvard Business Review Press. $39.95.)

This article by John Connolly appeared in the April issue of The Deal

Julie Connolly