22 lug 2014

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

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: an invisible career
barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from
accessing the ranks of power. 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?

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our
inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is,
because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of
confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that
men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to
leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from
Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that
manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are
commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur
muchmore frequently in men than in women.

This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a
natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and
narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality
characteristics are not equally common in men and women. In line,
Freud argued that the psychological process of leadership occurs
because a group of people — the followers — have replaced their own
narcissistic tendencies with those of the leader, such that their love
for the leader is a disguised form of self-love, or a substitute for
their inability to love themselves. "Another person's narcissism", he
said, "has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of
their own… as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of

The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men
tend to think that they that 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 in order 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. For example, women outperform men on
emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors.
Furthermore, a quantitative review of gender differences in
personality involving more than 23,000 participants in 26 cultures
indicated that women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble than
men, which is arguably one of the least counter-intuitive findings in
the social sciences. An even clearer picture emerges when one examines
the dark side of personality: for instance, our normative data, which
includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40
countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative
and risk-prone than women.

The paradoxical implication is that the same psychological
characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the
corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their
downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just
different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job
well. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to
management jobs, and promoted over more competent people.

Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a "leader" embodies many of the
characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as
narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the
name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or
Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician)
personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are
unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager
will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

In fact, most leaders — whether in politics or business — fail. That
has always been the case: the majority of nations, companies,
societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their
longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have
on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership
has always been the exception, not the norm.

So it struck me as a little odd that so much of the recent debate over
getting women to "lean in" has focused on getting them to adopt more
of these dysfunctional leadership traits. Yes, these are the people we
often choose as our leaders — but should they be?

Most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective
leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others
about their talent for management. This is especially true for women.
There is now compelling scientific evidence for the notion that women
are more likely to adopt more effective leadership strategies than do
men. Most notably, in a comprehensive review of studies, Alice Eagly
and colleagues showed that female managers are more likely to elicit
respect and pride from their followers, communicate their vision
effectively, empower and mentor subordinates, and approach
problem-solving in a more flexible and creative way (all
characteristics of "transformational leadership"), as well as fairly
reward direct reports. In contrast, male managers are statistically
less likely to bond or connect with their subordinates, and they are
relatively more inept at rewarding them for their actual performance.
Although these findings may reflect a sampling bias that requires
women to be more qualified and competent than men in order to be
chosen as leaders, there is no way of really knowing until this bias
is eliminated.

In sum, there is no denying that women's path to leadership positions
is paved with many barriers including a very thick glass ceiling. But
a much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent
men, and the fact that we tend to equate leadership with the very
psychological features that make the average man a more inept leader
than the average woman. The result is a pathological system that
rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their
competence, to everybody's detriment.

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