Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Harvard Business Review Press, March 12, 2019

240 pages, Harvard Business Review Press, Hardcover: $25, E-book: $15

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: The number of leaders in business and politics far outnumbers women. Author and authority on talent management Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains how many of our male leaders are placed in leadership roles for the wrong reasons and how we can remedy the situation.

Who’s it for? This topic is important enough for broad audiences. Organization boards or human resource groups that hire for important leadership roles would be well served by reading this book.

Author’s quote: “There is a world of difference between the personality traits and behaviors it takes to be chosen as a leader and the traits and skills you need to be able to lead.”

One way to sell a book is with a title in the form of a provocative question. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is qualified to ask this bold question. A professor of business psychology, author, and a chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, Chamorro-Premuzic comes to the table with extensive quantitative research that establishes why there are an inordinate number of incompetent men running major companies and organizations.

Within American S&P 500 companies, women make up 50 percent of the general workforce, but only 36 percent hold first line and middle manager positions, only 25 percent hold executive management positions, 20 percent have board positions, and only six percent are company CEOs. What we learn is that there are fundamental flaws in how we choose our leaders and that men are more likely than women to be chosen to accelerate up the leadership ladder.

Our traditional idea of a leader is one that is charismatic, energetic and confident. Research shows that though these characteristics are more common in men, none of these qualities are strongly linked to the competence needed to lead. Charisma is easily perceived to mean competence because it’s easily observed and agreed upon. The traditional job interview process perpetuates this myth of hiring and promoting individuals that exude confidence and charm while ignoring important traits that determine managerial success.

It’s the confidence – or more accurately the overconfidence of leaders – that gets organizations into trouble. Overconfident male leaders also have a tendency toward narcissistic behavior. This is not to say that women leaders can’t be overconfident, narcissistic, or incompetent – just not as likely as men. Chamorro-Premuzic goes on to explain how the best leaders have high levels of both IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional intelligence). Studied over time, women have a much higher level of EQ than men. With this in mind, women in general have a better skillset to build strong teams, groups and companies. Yet traditional bias and selection techniques prevent women from gaining higher leadership positions.

It’s best to not just recognize the current reality of poor leadership around us, but to focus on identifying the most qualified people for leadership positions. Incompetent leaders tend to have lower levels of engagement, morale and productivity in their organizations which results in high turnover and burnout – a costly price to pay. The book stresses how we need to adjust our instincts and look for leaders that are more competent even if they are humble and unassuming.

Selecting effective leaders becomes paramount not just to the success of the organization but for the happiness of team members. One of the book’s later chapters, “What Leaders Look Like,” stresses how strong leaders are able to prioritize common team goals over their own individual success.

Originally written as a 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders” goes far beyond anecdotal information to reveal why we think of leadership with the same “psychological features that make the average man more inept than the average woman.”  Chammaro-Premuzic’s book combines well-vetted research with writing that is eye-opening, interesting and enjoyable.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.