Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Harvard Business Review Press (March 2019)

Which qualities cause people to become incompetent leaders — and, conversely, good leaders?

According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “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? In other words, would the prevalence of bad leadership decrease if fewer men, and more women, were in charge?”

As he later explains, “it’s not just gender bias that holds competent women back from leadership and allows incompetent men to float to the top. It’s a fundamental disconnect between actual leadership talent and our assumptions about it. There is a world of difference between the personality traits and behaviors it takes to be [begin italics] chosen [end italics] and the traits and skills you need to [begin italics] be able [end italics] to lead effectively.”

Chamorro-Premuzic wrote this book in order to identify the key qualities that cause people to become incompetent leaders — and, conversely, good leaders.

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Chamorro-Premuzic’s coverage:

o The difference between competence and confidence (Pages 20-22)
o The Prevalence of overconfidence (22-29)
o The dangers of overconfidence (33-37)
o Spotting narcissism at work (42-44)
o Why narcissists are more likely to become leaders (45-47)

o Why men are more likely to be narcissists (sorry guys, it’s just science) Pages 48-50)
o Why narcissists don’t make good leaders (50-55)
o Why we love psychopaths (56-59)
o When psychopaths lead (59-63)
o Spotting psychopaths before you promote them (63-66)

o The charisma allure (70-74)
o The dark side of charisma (78-83)
o How EQ helps (women) at work (90-93)
o Intellectual social, and psychological capital (106-112)
o Leadership intent: personality in the right place (115-121)

o Measuring intellectual capital (129-132)
o Measuring new talent signals, or the promise of new technologies (137-144)
o Six data-driven lessons in leadership development (148-161)
o Evaluating leaders’ impact is still incredibly difficult (165-168)
o How we can do better (171-176)

Those who supervise leadership development programs as well as those who participate in them would be well-advised to keep this observation by Theodore Roosevelt clearly in mind: “People won’t care what leaders know until they know how much they care.”

Chamorro-Premuzic’s concluding remarks include these: “If we want better and more effective organizations and societies, we first and foremost need to improve the quality of our leaders. Compelling evidence suggests that leadership is more likely to improve if we start drawing more heavily from the female talent pool, especially if we understand that women most likely to drive positive change look quite different from the typical leaders we have today, irrespective of gender.  But even more critically, we must put in place much bigger obstacles for the disproportionate glut of incompetent men who are so adept at becoming leaders, to everyone’s peril.”

Whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need effective leaders at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. It is estimated that in 2018, U.S. companies spent about $20-BILLION on leadership development programs that involve earning business degrees, onsite classrooms and workshops, and self-directed instruction. The meager ROI is in large measure explained by what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny if custom.” Old wine in new bottles still tastes like old wine.

My take on all this is that the quality of an organization is best measured by the quality of its leaders. They must be carefully selected, hold accountable to much higher standards. I wholly agree with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: “Putting more women in leadership roles [who then act like incompetent men] does not necessarily improve the quality of leadership, whereas putting more talented leaders into leadership roles will increase the representation of women.”


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