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Q&A on the Book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

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Key Takeaways

  • The best diversity and inclusion policy is to focus on talent rather than gender
  • The solution to our gender diversity problem is not to lower the standards when we pick female leaders, but to elevate them when we pick male leaders
  • If we select leaders based on actual potential, then women would outnumber men in leadership positions
  • We tend to discuss the underrepresentation of women in leadership, but a bigger problem is the overrepresentation of men, particularly those who are inept
  • If we want to increase both the number of women leaders and the quality of our leaders, we should focus less on confidence, charisma, and narcissism, and more on competence, humility, and integrity 

In the book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains why it is so easy for incompetent men to become leaders and so hard for competent people - especially women - to advance. He explores leadership qualities and dives into how to recognize them, paving the way to improve leadership in organizations.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of the book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?.

InfoQ interviewed Chamorro-Premuzic about the consequences of bad leadership, the problem with mistaking confidence for competence, judging leadership abilities, how psychopaths lead and what effect that has, gender differences in leadership-oriented qualities, how artificial intelligence will impact leadership, recognizing leadership potential, gamification in assessments, and what doesn't work and what does when it comes to developing leadership skills.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: It was a reaction to the lean in argument, which essentially blamed women for not showcasing their drive and grabbing key opportunities to advance their career. When I wrote the original HBR article, which went to become one of the most popular articles on the site, my main point was that instead of asking women to display the same traits that contribute to the overrepresentation of narcissistic, overconfident, and incompetent men, we should get better at judging actual potential. And that if you really evaluate leadership potential carefully, you would end up with more women than men in leadership, for women score better than men on measures of competence, humility, and integrity. 

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Anyone who is interested in understanding the psychology of leadership in general, and more specifically: (a) how gender and personality shape our choices of leaders, and (b) how those leaders impact organizations. It can be useful for leaders and HR professionals, but also people who are interested in being effective leaders. 

InfoQ: What are the consequences of bad leadership?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Disengagement, the rise of passive job seekers, self-employment, and start-up rates. Bad leaders propel people to exit their jobs and organizations, and to even shy away from traditional employment altogether. 

InfoQ: What is it that makes people overconfident?

Chamorro-Premuzic: We are pre-wired for optimism, in particular when it comes to our self-views. Most people would always prefer a distorted version of reality that makes them look good, smart, talented, than a realistic view that makes them look silly, dim, or responsible for bad outcomes. And over the years this capacity for self-deception evolved as an adaptation for deceiving others into thinking that we are more talented than we actually are: when I fool myself into thinking that I'm good at something, I will be less likely to project insecurities and self-doubt, which will in turn persuade others that I'm good at something. This is especially true when ability is hard to judge, such as in the case of leadership. 

InfoQ: Why do people mistake confidence for competence, and where does that lead us?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Because it is much easier to observe: confidence is signalled by assertiveness, being talkative, making eye contact, smiling and not showing anxiety. Competence is purely intellectual so you need to be retrieve the person’s knowledge and expertise, and it requires you to be an expert too. As the story with the famous Nobel Prize laureate Amos Tversky, who was allegedly freakishly smart, went: “The sooner you realized that Tvsersky was smarter than you, the smarter you were”. We could argue that for the majority of leaders, the reverse is true: “The sooner you realize that they are not as good as they think, the smarter you are”.

InfoQ: You mentioned earlier that it is hard to judge leadership abilities. Why is this?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Because they are not directly observable and increasingly based on a wide range of complex and rather abstract intellectual and emotional processes. Just imagine judging someone’s mathematical ability by looking at them; leadership is even more complex, because you can’t test it with a knowledge test. In our evolutionary beginnings it was mostly about courage, physical strength, and dexterity; today it is about synthesizing complex information, translating it into a meaningful mission, and connecting with others on both an intellectual and emotional level. And yet we still trust our instincts and expect to work out when someone is a good leader or not after a five-minute conversation or watching them for 20-minute in a TV debate...

InfoQ: In the book, you mentioned that a significant percentage of our leaders are psychopaths. How do they lead and what effect does that have?

Chamorro-Premuzic: They take unnecessary risks, are fearless and seem brave, but have little concern for rules and others. They can be charming at first but are cruel and greedy in the long term. Fundamentally, they have moral deficits that decrease their willingness to take into account other people’s wellbeing and focus too much on their own selfish objectives. Note that by definition such behaviors can be rather adaptive and advantageous to the individual who displays them, but there can only be a small number of them in any group or collective system for the system to thrive. An organization with a toxic or parasitic culture where too many people display such behaviors will eventually malfunction or implode. 

InfoQ: What gender differences exist in leadership-oriented qualities and how do they impact the way that men or women lead?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Because we over-select for masculine features, such as charisma, confidence, assertiveness, and self-centered drive, there is now much more need for feminine traits, such as competence, self-awareness, people-skills, humility, and integrity. Note that differences are very small, but they do favour women. They impact on women’s leadership style by making them more people-focused, more interested in attending to their followers and subordinates’ emotional wellbeing, and by increasing their coachability; the key determinant of whether a leader develops or not is his or her ability to take on board criticism and have the humility to accept that there is a gap between where they should be and where they actually are. 

InfoQ: How do you expect that artificial intelligence will impact leadership?

Chamorro-Premuzic: By helping us rely less on our intuition and to measure leadership performance more objectively, AI can find patterns in complex and large datasets and - unlike humans - unlearn or ignore certain variables, such as gender, race, or age. When it comes to detecting the key signals that predict future leadership performance, we can safely assume that a combination of human expertise and AI will advance our (now rudimentary) predictive accuracy. It is also feasible that as AI continues to automate certain aspects of leadership, such as data mining and data-base decisions, there will be an even bigger premium for the emotional aspects of leadership, which will always remain inherently human. No matter how advanced machines and computers are, it is safe to assume that they will never really give a damn, and people will always crave human affection. 

InfoQ: What should organizations focus on if they want to recognize leadership potential?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Use scientific assessment tools or robust data rather than their instincts. Follow the science and look for the qualities that make people better leaders, particularly when they don't usually help people become leaders. What gets you there is different from what you need when you get there, and what you need to lead effectively when you get there is not what helps you get there. In particular, psychometric tests such as cognitive ability measures (which evaluate learning potential) and the Big Five personality inventory (which accounts for almost 50% of the variability in leadership potential) can reliably predict whether someone becomes a leader and how effective they are when they do. Contrary to what people think, interviews add very little predictive power when you use these two tools. 

InfoQ: How can we use gamification in assessments and which benefits can it give?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Gamification is not as important as people think, particularly if they are interested in accuracy because so called game-based tools have yet to demonstrate their predictive accuracy to assess leadership potential, especially in independent/credible scientific journals. At the same time, it is clear that there are advantages in shortening the assessment process to enhance the user experience, so that tools are more widely used, which would make assessment more inclusive and talent identification more effective, widening the pool of candidates 

InfoQ: What doesn't work and what does when it comes to developing leadership skills?

Chamorro-Premuzic: What does not work is what companies usually do: they fail to identify potential so they end up selecting the wrong people for development or waste money developing people with no potential. They tell candidates what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. They focus on their strengths rather than mitigate their weaknesses. They don't measure true ROI of interventions, just candidate experience. What does work is (a) using data-driven tools to accurately evaluate potential, (b) giving leaders the feedback they need to hear, including information on their weaknesses, (c) evaluating change vis-a-vis actual performance metrics, such as leaders’ 360s, team engagement, productivity, performance data.

About the Book Author

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics. He is the chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, co-founder of Deeper Signals and Metaprofiling, and professor of Business Psychology at both University College London, and Columbia University. He has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics, and lectured at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, Johns Hopkins, IMD, and INSEAD, as well as the CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems. Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic has published nine books and over 130 scientific papers (h index 58), making him one of the most prolific social scientists of his generation.

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Community comments

  • Who wrote those key takeaways?

    by Lucas Vogel /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I don't believe Dr. Tomas was saying what these key takeaways are trying to imply - in fact, I'd make the case that they highly damage the message he's trying to convey about searching for quality and potential in leadership, which admittedly for most organizations can be very difficult. From what I read in the interview, Dr. Tomas discusses the challenges faced when searching for talent; in the key takeaways, it gives the impression that women are routinely passed up for promotion because all organizations have a salient fascination with men who are at the very least incompetent, or at worst, narcissistic psychopaths, among other things.

    I don't think I need to explain how utterly ridiculous these proclamations sound, but I would like to point out that it doesn't do Dr. Tomas or his potential readers any justice by saying such inflammatory and divisive things.


    That's also a really crappy book title, so maybe I'm giving Dr. Tomas too much benefit of the doubt here.

  • We really had a choice?

    by Cameron Purdy /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?"


    Well, think about the other options that we had to pick from ... "leader" really doesn't sound that bad!

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