Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 13, 2019
As my readers know, I am an unabashed cheerleader for smart, powerful women. After all, I am married to one. So I was fascinated by a new book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at Manpower (a shout out to locals Phil Blair and Mel Katz), and also a professor of business psychology at University College London. The book is called “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”
At this point, I would be inclined to drop the mic and exit stage left. What more is there to say? Traditionally, when you find yourself in a hole, the best advice is to put the shovel down and stop digging. But no incompetent male leader wants to go down without a fight, so let’s give the professor a chance to make his case.
First, how prevalent is the incompetent boss? Studies show that roughly 70 percent of workers dislike their boss or direct manager, so we definitely have a target rich environment to work with. Chamorro-Premuzic’s study suggests that “since most leaders are male, and most leaders are incompetent,” he therefore concludes that there is a logical and causal link. (Cum hoc ergo propter hoc). Don’t send your outraged emails to me; send them to the good professor.
But let me also come to his defense. His study shows that females are rapidly moving into leadership positions today, but the most successful ones “out-male the men in masculinity traits — exhibiting reckless, narcissistic, bold, overconfident and deluded tendencies.” Wow! Or should I say NOW, (National Organization of Women).
Chamorro-Premuzic does say that studies show there is a premium on leaders today who display “more feminine features.” But toxic leadership is equally tolerated by both male and female employees because in the effort to get ahead, “everybody manages up — politicking and sucking up to their bosses — because that’s how they get rewarded.” If the system is rotten, change the system.
Then Chamorro-Premuzic takes a big leap with this statement: “Men generally think they are smarter than women.” (What else is new?) Further, he notes “the tendency to self-deceive is particularly striking in men, more so than in women.” (If I had a sword, this is when I would fall on it and beg for mercy.) And finally the ultimate slam down: “Humans are over-confident in general, but men are more over-confident than women and get rewarded more for being over-confident.” That is not news to every working woman in America. The same over-confidence that is applauded and gets the man hired is perceived in a woman leader as “pathologically ambitious.” And so women are not chosen as frequently to lead. Gentlemen, if your wing-tip Ferragamos or Lanvin suede and patent leather low-top sneakers are pinching your toes at this point, then say hello to the high heel shoes right behind you.
Just consider the boards of directors in the corporate world, the recent American political landscape and the world of sports. There is clearly a shortage of skirts, but not a commensurate shortage of talent. He argues that if we had more women in leadership positions, things would be better. He praises German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In fact, he makes a persuasive case that a large majority of the world — excluding the United States — is more inclusive and supportive of women leaders and are better off for it.
But enlightenment can be found. He tells a famous story from David Ogilvy, a major advertising executive in the 1960s, who gave a Russian nesting doll to every new hire and told them, “If you hire people who are smaller than you, we will become a company of dwarfs. If you hire bigger, we will be a company of giants.” And please note carefully, the nesting doll is a woman.
Finally, Chamorro-Premuzic makes the case that women are better than men in the areas of emotional quotient, humility, coachability and altruism. He concludes that, “If you couple that with integrity and competence, you get a high-performing manager.”
So there you have it. The challenge now is to look inside your organizations and begin to think about rewarding and promoting leadership without the gender bias that has been instilled over centuries. Good luck.
Rule No. 610
Don’t shoot the messenger.