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Where Are All the Competent Leaders?

A talent scientist outlines what leadership incompetence looks like and provides solutions to wean it out.
By: | May 6, 2019 • 5 min read
competent leaders

In 2013, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychologist and chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” It was written in response to the “lean-in” movement that had taken hold when Sheryl Sandberg published her book: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Chamorro-Premuzic felt that leaning in was a naive and counterproductive message to women looking to break through glass ceilings and land in leadership roles. His reasoning, as the title of his article reveals, is that too many incompetent men are leaders, so why would we want women following in those misguided footsteps?

Flash forward to 2019 and Chamorro-Premuzic has expanded on the research he conducted in 2013 to fill 180 pages of his latest book: Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it).  HRE spoke with Chamorro-Premuzic to learn more about his book, the research behind his controversial title and what HR leaders can do to help steer competent leaders to the top of the organization.

HRE: How did we get to a place where so many incompetent men are leaders?

TCP: It’s a progressive escalation of number of conflated factors. First, the nature of leadership has changed from 200 years ago—even from 50,000 years ago. The ingrained archetypes of leadership based on our evolutionary ancestors have followed us. In the early days, we thought leaders had to be strong, brave, tall, aggressive—typically male, typically seen as protectors. Today leadership is complex and involves abstract competencies and abilities, which we can’t observe directly like we could with strength and aggression. Instead, we’re intuitively geared to infer whether someone is a leader or not.

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HR practices are very influenced by this attempt of inferring leadership potential. Most interviews, for example, aren’t well designed even with two to three people interviewing. During interviews we infer whether someone is a good culture fit, or whether we’d like working with that person, which shifts attention from competence to charisma, charm, political or manipulative skills.

HR practices and organizations are at fault because there’s no habit of measuring leadership performance correctly. Most leaders are evaluated by how well they’re liked by their superiors. Rather, it should be how they impact their team—we do it in sports, but if you ask the average organization who are you best leaders, even HR will point to the most successful person, not the most effective.

HRE: What are the warning signs of an incompetent leader?

TCP: First in terms of looking at performance indicators, how leaders impact their team. Organizations should solicit upward feedback from leader’s direct reports on how the latter rate the leader in terms of integrity, managing individual’s performance, if the leader pushes their people to perform and grow, and is fair and competent.

Bad leaders create high levels of anxiety, turnover, low morale, low productivity—these are the KPI that organizations should look for. If two leaders have equal responsibilities but differ drastically in team output, we know that 30 percent to 40 percent of that output is attributable to the leader.

The worst type of leader is unpredictable. They are passionate one day and throwing tantrums the next. They’re skeptical and cynical and paranoid. They display over-competent narcissistic or psychopathic tendencies, such as blaming others for mistakes and taking credit for other’s accomplishments.

They “manage up” because that’s how they get promoted and rewarded. Real leadership is managing down and empowering your team to perform well.

If a leader is competent, has great influence and is very skilled but they lack integrity, you’re toast. That’s why it’s so important to evaluate the leader’s values and ethics to see if they have integrity. According to Warren Buffet, “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

Lack of integrity shows up as having the wrong goals in mind, including trying to enrich yourself, advance your career, not caring about rules or norms, basically being morally corrupt, pursuing your selfish and self-centered interest.

It creates what organizational psychology calls a free-rider effect. In any ecosystem you can have one or two antisocial free riders—leeches living off of the healthy system to thrive. But if the majority are free riders, the system self-destructs.

In corporate America, incentives designed to entice leaders attract power hunger people who are interested in their own economic and financial success to achieve these goals without creating sustainable long-term success for their organization. And, executives feed in to this individualist mindset.

HRE: You mention in your book that men in particular are often too big to fail—can you expand on that?

TCP: Usually men, but not always—Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, is a clear example of a psychopathic leader—she perfected the game within the same system where men become too big to fail, wherein they co-opt powerful people. If everyone invests money and trust and judgement in you there will be a great incentive to perpetuate the illusion of competence. There’s talk about Elon Musk being the next bubble to burst. Indicators are his behavior, the dark-side traits, failing to meet key goals—yet Tesla stock keeps increasing because he has a magnetic, charismatic image. It’s this self-fulfilling prophecy society is interested in perpetuating because perceptions of leadership and success trump reality … or even create it.

HRE: How, then, can we get women into more leadership roles?

TCP: The good news is the solution is straight forward. Follow the recipes or formulas that have been in place for a long time. The ROI has been made. Organizations that have meritocratic talent-management practices by hiring the right people for the right job, developing them for the skills and roles and putting in place cultures that are fair and performance driven outperform their rivals. Those companies top the charts in best places to work, have the most engaged workforce that doesn’t want to leave—and they don’t even need to pay people that much!

It’s important that the goal remains what its always been: get better leaders in place. The goal isn’t to have more women leaders, but to have more talented leaders in place. If you do that then you will have more women than men in leadership. The best gender diversity policy is to focus on talent not gender.

We know what qualities make people better leaders: competence, humility, emotional intelligence, self-awareness—we all agree on what they are, but we don’t hire for these things when we select leaders. Instead we hire over confident people who are unethical, not humble and aren’t competent.

Employers and HR leaders need to learn to use data-driven tools and assessment because knowing what qualities to assess for without the right assessment tools is being effective at assessing the wrong things.

We’ve known this for 30-40 years through metanalyses and peer-reviewed evidence, but it’s still not applied at scale. To some degree HR practices need to align with the scientific evidence. We don’t have to wait for a great scientific advancement, let’s just do what we know will work and what we’ve known for decades. Don’t lower the bar so that competent women are more able, but raise the bar to stop incompetent individuals from becoming leaders. Right now, there are not enough competent men in leadership positions. And there are a limited number of leader roles currently occupied by people who aren’t very good. The main goal should be to replace as many of them with competent people.

HRE: How can employers ensure women aren’t following in a narcissist’s footsteps and becoming leaders based on charisma rather than competency?

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TCP: When you read 90 percent of (well-intended) advice to help women, it actually misses the point and makes this mistake. Advice tells women to self-promote, lean in, take credit—fake it til’ you make it.

It starts with having a serious culture in place that focuses on leaders’ performance—don’t measure whether people self-promote, but nurture and celebrate quiet achievements. If you’re not putting yourself forward for a leader role, I’ll pay special attention to you because you’re focused on managing your job, team and tasks—that’s an advantage. This starts at the top—execs need to determine what’s rewarded and punished in an organization.

If we promote women or men with competent profiles, but then we still reward narcissistic displays of over confidence, you’ll get the same results we have today. Change the rules of the game. It may take one to two years to put a culture in place that does what organizations are supposed to be doing by awarding talent capacity. Everyone says they do this but there’s a big gap.

What scientists and researchers are asking from companies is to fight nepotism, be less political and more meritocratic.

HRE: Do you think employers currently value potential more than talent?

TCP: There are some companies that are doing talent development well, where they really focus and are serious about applying the science and using data-driven tools to evaluate the right things in the right way. Then they perfect the process and tweak it. Examples include Pepsi Co, Shell, Boeing, Coca Cola and IBM.

These companies have highly trained and sophisticated people in their HR departments. They have qualified, curious people who are good at ignoring the fads and shiny new objects, who understand that AI and tech won’t solve all of their problems but are still innovative. Plus, these HR leaders have earned internal credibility so that the C-suite and senior leaders trust them to do their thing.

A great CHRO has the ability to gain CEOs trust and co-opt the C-suite. Without this buy-in you can be as good as you want but nothing happens. Internally, the CHROs are considered important because CEOs have realized most problems are people problems, and the solutions will come from HR.

HRE: What can HR leaders do to help combat the succession of incompetent leaders?

TCP: This needs to progress from the start. We need leaders who believe in the benefits of good leadership and the damages of bad leadership. Then they must understand that the only way to improve a leadership pipeline is to have talent-management systems that use science and data rather than intuition.

Implement rigorous performance-based, data-driven systems that reward people who are contributing, and sanitize some of the nepotism and politics.

HRE: What are some of the takeaways you want to leave leaders with when they read your book?

TCP: I hope that it changes or re-frames some of the conversation around gender diversity. I mention gender diversity in the book only once. I want readers to understand the argument, evidence, coherent data and what this means for gender diversity leadership discussions. This will help organizations be more data driven and smarter in the way they vet, select, appoint and develop leaders. That goal is undeniably good for everyone. Everyone benefits when we have better leaders in place.

Danielle Westermann King received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications.

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