Episode 148: So Many Incompetent Leaders

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…why are so many leaders bad at their jobs, and could their sex have anything to do with that?

“When you ask people, who wants to do something, who wants to be in charge, be successful…the people who raise their hands may or may not have talent. For sure more men than women are gonna raise their hands. So instead of blaming women for not leaning in, how about we stop falling for people, usually men, who lean in when they don’t have the talents to back it up?”

 Most of us give our leaders a failing grade…would that change if more of them were women? Coming up on The Broad Experience.

A few months ago one of my guests was Financial Times writer Pilita Clark. When we spoke in our episode about women and mediocrity, she brought up a book she’d read and I’d heard about. Its title…Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it).

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the author of that book. He’s also chief talent scientist for Manpower Group, a huge staffing firm.

“Mostly my remit is pretty sensible, it’s to ensure we can apply latest science and technology for understanding people – their strengths, talents and skills, to help them find relevant jobs…companies or employers tell you, I need A, B or C, how can you work out whether somebody has that talent and potential? That includes also predicting whether someone can be good manager or a good leader.”

Science and technology – we’ll come back to this later, but Tomas says rather than using these methods to determine who could be a promising leader, we keep falling back on old stereotypes we can detect with our own eyes and ears – people, usually men, who are bursting with confidence and charisma, who have a pretty high opinion of their talents, and often turn out not to be nearly as good as they think they are.

Tomas came to his current role by way of academia and clinical practice. He’s a psychologist by training. And he says growing up where he did in Buenos Aires, that career choice was almost inevitable. His neighborhood, Villa Freud, was bursting with therapists – and their clients.

“The reality is that when I was growing up everyone went to the psychoanalyst, or had a shrink, even our dog at home had a psychoanalyst, who was obviously treating us, not the dog. The dog looked pretty embarrassed while we were describing the problems it had. So it was natural almost by default that I went on and studied psychology.”

He says he got interested in the topic of leadership early on, again, because of where he lived.  

“Growing up in Argentina you could see at any point in time the problems incompetent leadership causes. 150 years ago Argentina was the future, it was one of the richest countries in the world with a GDP higher than Germany’s and France, today it’s the only perpetually declining nation in the world, why? Because we keep electing inept leaders, who tend to be mostly charismatic, over-confident narcissists.”

These outward traits seduce us – or a lot of us anyway. Studies show more men than women are over-confident (and do we really even need a study to tell us that?), and that quality often disguises a lack of competence.

Meanwhile, he says, stereotypical female traits like self-awareness and emotional intelligence and empathy are seen as soft, not seen as leadership traits.

“It’s a bit like when you tell women oh, you’re too kind and caring to be a leader… first that’s patronizing, secondly, we need leaders who are kind and caring.”

Which leads me to my first question.

AM-T: “I remember years ago reading your piece with that same title, ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’ in the Harvard Business review and I remember you referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, because that had just come out. Can you just talk a little bit about, now that article has become a book, what prompted you to write that piece?” 

“So the original idea for the article was actually my editor’s – I always say behind every incompetent man there is a competent woman. Because Sarah Greene, who was my editor at the time, she was the editor for the book, sent me this link on Sheryl’s new book and the beginning of the movement if you like, and said, what do you think? I said, it doesn’t make much sense to me. In the rich world today there’s no evidence that women don’t want to be managers or leaders. They should have lower levels of motivation given they have fewer options and choices. And yet their willingness or desire to lead is as high as that you find in men.

Secondly, the Lean In argument does seem to be pointing the finger at women and telling them we need to fix you, there’s something wrong with you, you are responsible for your inadequate levels of success…oh, just look at me, I made it just by leaning in. And that’s the last part I wanted to tackle with the article and the main argument underpinning book. So in any area of competence or talent there has never been a correlation between people wanting to do something and people being good at something. That applies to leadership as well, when you ask people who wants to do something, who wants to be in charge, be successful? The people who raise their hands may or may not have talent, the correlation is almost zero. For sure more men than women are gonna raise their hands. So argument I made was, instead of blaming women for not leaning in, how about we stop falling for people, usually men, who lean in when they don’t have the talents to back it up?”

AM-T: “Talk about, well you call it the female advantage, and I always feel we’re getting into slightly murky waters when we begin to talk about male and female traits, but maybe you could tell people, you make the point that on so many measures men and women are actually really similar…”

“Yeah, men and women are similar in most regards. You have to first understand that even when we talk about personality traits that are stereotypically more feminine, things like emotional intelligence, altruism, friendliness, sensitivity, caring, self-awareness, self-criticism, humility and integrity – each of these traits is normally distributed, so much like height…you can imagine if you plot height across gender on average men are taller than women, but we all know women who a taller than a lot of men and vice versa. Same applies to these traits. We all know men who are more humble, caring, empathetic than many women, but I think it’s still accurate to say that these are feminine traits because they are on average displayed more frequently by women than by men.”

Still, he knows not everyone will appreciate that description.

“Feminists don’t like this argument because their view, the traditional feminist view is we are the same and there aren’t any gender differences and in essence androgyny is the reality. It is true culturally we are gravitating towards androgyny - so if you compare chauvinistic countries like Japan and Argentina to egalitarian countries like Iceland and Sweden, you’ll see more androgynous displays of behavior, so fewer gender differences in the latter. But today, still there are these gender differences. What I’m arguing is not to have more women in charge but I’m trying to highlight the benefits of a more feminine leadership style.  Because after decades of selecting too much on hyper masculinity, and putting people in charge because they are kick-ass aggressive, fearless, over-confident, and quite greedy at times, there is more of a need than there ever was to have people who have altruism, integrity, humility, empathy and caring – so that’s the female advantage and that’s why my conclusion is that if it’s your goal to increase the representation of women in leadership, the best gender diversity intervention to achieve that is to focus on talent, not on gender. If you focus on talent you won’t just get more women in leadership roles, you’ll get slightly more women than men in leadership roles.

By the way, today many competent men are overlooked or ignored for leadership roles because they are more feminine than our archetypes like to think leaders should be like.”

He stresses this: he’s not saying that all men are terrible leaders or that all women are amazing leaders. He’s saying that if only more organizations – and electorates – would revise what we thought of as desirable leadership traits we’d have a lot more competent leadership everywhere.

And another thing, he says…the idea of leadership itself is often misunderstood.

“…often it focuses not on whether you’re truly interested in turning a group of people into a high performing team but the question almost is diluted to, would you like to be successful? Because if you want to be successful you almost certainly have to manage people, have responsibilities and be a leader. Too many people equate being a leader with the pinnacle of individual of career success. In fact leadership is a psychological role that enables people to be part of a unit to work together and achieve something they can’t achieve individually.”

Now those of you who are leaders will know that already. But I have to admit that I hadn’t thought about it that carefully before and I sort of fell into that trap of equating leadership with this personal goal of…being a leader means being someone at the top of the pile. Rather than thinking of it as the person who’s meant to inspire people, help everyone else do their jobs better.

And of course a lot of people with a leadership title DON’T do that. 

“They have negative effects on their teams, on their subordinates, their followers, meaning they cause low levels of engagement, job satisfaction, productivity, trust, morale…and high levels of anxiety, burnout, stress. They’re the main reason why people quit not just their jobs but their organizations, and in some instances traditional employment altogether. Most people who enter self-employment have been traumatized by their previous bosses.”

I’m guessing some of you are among them.

The beginning of Tomas’s book focuses on over-confidence and narcissism and how damaging those traits can be in a leader. And how over-confident people so often overshadow more modest people with plenty of skills to do the job.

And I flatter myself that I can spot an over-confident narcissist a mile off. But when I got to the chapter on the myth of charisma…and how we rely on that far too much when we pick someone for a job…that’s when I thought, hmm…I could be part of the problem. Because I am a sucker for charisma. And I wanted to know why – why do I feel drawn to someone whose character sparkles right out of the gate?

Tomas says if you think back a few millennia to when we all lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers. We had to assess our fellow humans on physical traits like strength – could they defeat a predator? Run away quickly? We just looked at them and drew our conclusion.

“Fast forward thousands of years, and we’re living in world where talent is abstract, hard to judge, how do you know if someone can put in place digital transformation or come up with good innovation strategy? It requires a lot of expertise, it requires competence to spot competence and to spot incompetence…but we’re still living under this illusion that we interact with someone for a few minutes, we can tell. It’s why we value charisma so much…you’re not necessarily a bad person when you’re charismatic, but if you’re a bad person charisma will make you a lot more destructive…right, these are extreme examples but Stalin, Mao, Hitler, name your dictator, would have been a lot less harmful had they not been charismatic.”

Of course we don’t all fall for charisma all the time. He says German premier Angela Merkel, re-elected multiple times? No one’s going to want to make a movie about her. Mary Barra, CEO of GM? Her personality has apparently been described as ‘vanilla’. Both leaders have been uncommonly successful at their jobs. They’re competent without the outward show.

But he says we often make snap decisions about people’s potential because, basically…we’re lazy.

“We’re much more efficient if we don’t have to spend a lot of time working out what somebody else is like.”

And as humans we need to maintain high levels of self-esteem – at work and elsewhere. We don’t want to be wrong. So he says even if we are…we’re usually loath to admit it.

“So I make inferences about you and arrive at the rapid conclusion that you’re boring, nasty, stupid, I’ll then attend to any information that supports that initial inference and ignore anything that contradicts this. Why, because I want to feel good about myself. Think about the implications of this at work, say I interview you for a job and I think you’re great, 6 months later even if you suck at that job, I will still want to think that you are great, otherwise I look like an idiot.

So we are intellectually lazy, we want to make decisions on others in split seconds, we don’t want to prove ourselves wrong so we are stubborn and love ourselves too much to admit to mistakes. And then finally there is the ever growing complexity of the world of talent, the world of work, where you need a science and a methodology to work out what people are good at. It’s crazy to think in world awash with data, where you can have live Twitter feeds fact checking anything politicians say online, that doesn’t change people’s votes. It’s whether someone is sweaty or looks good or has a nice suit or makes a joke is more important determining whether we vote for that person or not…in America today the number one predictor of who wins the presidency other than height is, would you like to have a beer with this person? So we love to live in a world where our gut feelings and instincts drive our decisions, and we love to ignore evidence even when there is an overwhelming amount of it.”

When Tomas talks to CEOs and other executives – which he does pretty much every day, and asks them how they tell if someone has good leadership potential…

“More often than not the answer is, you just know, or, you know it when you see it, or I know it when I see it.”

But he says the reality is that’s far from the case for most people.

“So we have to have the humility and self-criticism to distrust our instincts, focus on the right traits and use the right tools, ideally science-based tools, to identify those traits, and it’s frustrating because we’ve known this to be the case for three or four decades.”

But what he calls the unstructured interview where it’s really more of a conversation…it’s still prevalent. And he says this type of interview is a classic way for the interviewer to fall back on old biases and end up choosing someone who’s a lot like him or her.  

But I have to say I don’t like the idea of these psychometric tests…

AM-T: “I’m one of these people, I would worry I would mis-perform on a test, and I’d hope they’d meet me…I’d hope I can impress them with my personality, and it’s interesting that I’m fearful of the method you say is far better at measuring how we are.”

“Yes, historically the interview has mostly been a chat, I mean we met, we established a rapport, but imagine actually that determines whether you get a job or not and imagine there are alternatives that in essence follow the same approach, which is to try to find relevant signal of potential, which is to try to correlate things you do that make you different from others with performance indicators. Because that’s how you decide as a human, whether you trust someone, whether they’re interesting, but we can’t do it at scale, and we can’t do it really rigorously. Especially if you want a world that is more egalitarian and fairer towards minorities, vulnerable populations, especially if you’re saying we should ignore things like whether somebody is female and attractive, old, poor, etcetera…humans are not very good at ignoring information, we can’t unlearn things.”

He says as the digital world evolves…there will be more and better data and technology to help us determine people’s potential for top jobs. We just have to use it.

Before Tomas and I ended our conversation I wanted to get back to female leaders. I was thinking of one in particular and wondering what Tomas, her fellow countryman, thought of her leadership style. I wasn’t sure she displayed many of those female traits he described earlier. So how does he rate former Argentine president Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner…

“She is exceptional in many ways – ironically there have been more female heads of state in South America, more than in more egalitarian places, but these women have tended to out-male males in masculinity. So she definitely displays a lot of antagonistic and anti-social tendencies, she is very abrasive, over confident and quite brash and reckless. Although I don’t have her personality assessment, it is fair to guess, to infer that there are some narcissistic tendencies there.”

None of which he says is that surprising given her rise in a macho culture…

“So often you can be a biological female but you’re part of the same system and you rise to the top with the same rules of the game. Now Theresa May is gone, but for…” 

AM-T: “I was just gonna get to her. A lot of people would say she’s not charismatic, and I was one of the people who thought at the time phew, someone who’s boring and sensible, but she’s turned out to not be a very good leader.”

“Correct, so a lot of people – which I think you could have predicted, right, given where she came from, and the fact nobody wanted that job, but when the book came out a lot of men wrote to me saying, there are also incompetent women, look at Theresa May… well first, incompetent women don’t rise to the top as frequently as incompetent men. And secondly, even though she is probably incompetent or was incompetent, the impossible problem she was asked to solve was caused by incompetent men, or men who behaved, or had incompetent lapses at least for some time.”

He’s talking about former British prime minster David Cameron, who ushered in a national referendum on EU membership fully expecting voters to want to stay IN the EU, not leave it, as the majority voted to do.  

“Things for sure from an individual career standpoint had been good for him and the country to the extent even people who disliked the Conservatives couldn’t complain too much about him. Suddenly one really bad over-confident decision led to the problem we are still trying to solve today. And sometimes people take issue with this, they don’t like it because they assume I am taking a remainer’s point of view, and people still voted for Brexit and that is true, people voted for Brexit, but from his own view point or vantage point, it was a big mistake.”

As I release this episode Theresa May is on her way out…and her likely successor is an over-confident, charismatic…you know the rest…

“…and I am a British citizen so I can speak to this as well, I think the prospects of her successors are going to be not just worse but fully aligned with the characters I describe in my book. So it’s the return of the incompetent men on steroids I think.”

I think the prospects of Britain’s new prime minister opening Tomas’s book are slim, but I do recommend it for anyone who wants a thoughtful take on what constitutes good leadership and what will lead to more of it. 

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for being my guest on this show.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.