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Many people moan that their boss is inept, mean, erratic, lazy or otherwise incompetent. You may have raised such complaints in the past, or now. Most leaders, of course, are male.

“What if those two observations – that most leaders are bad and most leaders are male – are causally linked? In other words, would the prevalence of bad leadership decrease if fewer men, and more women were in charge?” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia Business School, asks in his new book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (And How to Fix It).

If that isn’t provocative enough, Prof. Chamorro-Premuzic, who is also chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, suggests the underrepresentation of women in leadership ranks is not because of their lack of ability or motivation, but due to our inability to detect incompetence in men. “When men are considered for leadership positions, the same traits that predict their downfall are commonly mistaken – even celebrated – as signs of leadership potential or talent. Consequently, men’s character flaws help them emerge as leaders because they are disguised as attractive leadership qualities,” he says.

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He highlights confidence and self-absorption, which we need to see as red flags in leaders rather than attractive signs of charisma or authority. We can mistake confidence for competence, but he says research shows no such linkage. As for self-absorption, we know that narcissism is unhealthy and narcissistic leaders dangerous, but we still get tricked.

And yes, there are confident and self-absorbed women who are leaders. He says studies show gender differences in narcissism have been declining over recent decades, not because men are shedding such tendencies, but because women have become more narcissistic. “This change reflects the danger of encouraging women to lean in or act more like men to climb the corporate ladder,” he writes.

While the quality of confidence is a positive trait in leaders, overconfident leaders put themselves forward for tasks they are incapable of handling. Women are generally assumed to be less confident but, he says, they are internally confident. They don’t display it as noticeably, however, or are not perceived by others as assertive. And that may be self-protective: He says we are less likely to tolerate high confidence in women than men. Men are more likely to be overconfident, he says, and suggests that is because we live in a world where their flaws are forgiven and strengths magnified.

What should we do? We need to start by realizing gender imbalance in organizational leadership may reflect mistakes in evaluation, and that we may be using the wrong tools. In Scaling Leadership, Robert Anderson and William Adams present a competency model in the form of a circle – you may have seen similar ones – with 29 components, more than we can easily grasp. But they break it down into two parts, which they call creative (18 competencies) and reactive (11 tendencies). The latter are the problematic ones, strengths that are being misused, or “run reactively,” as they put it: Among those are behaviours such as:

  • Complying: This involves a leader acquiring a sense of self-worth and security by complying with expectations of others. The person can be conservative, pleasing, conformist or passive.
  • Protecting: The leader protects himself by withdrawing and remaining distant. It includes arrogance, being critical and being distant from others.
  • Controlling: The need to develop self-worth through task accomplishment. The person seeks flawless results from others, is driven, ambitious and autocratic.

Those are warning signs, but they can be mistaken for positive leadership traits because they have some helpful aspects – so beware. We have to change our thinking in promoting people, to find competent men and women, and weed out incompetent men and women. We need to be aware that a lot of recent research is favouring so-called feminine skills – such as empathy, listening and bringing people together – as advantages.

McKinsey & Co. suggested in a report last October that at the beginning of their tenures most chief executives dramatically change their leadership team – two-thirds of CEOs replace at least half of their top team. But those teams remain as gender imbalanced as at the start. The consultants suggest it’s a missed opportunity for closing the gender gap. Prof. Chamorro-Premuzic’s book suggests it may be a missed opportunity for improving competence at the top.


  • CAVE is an acronym for Citizens Against Virtually Everything – people who resist all change, psychologist Laura Methot says in Rotman Management magazine. How many CAVE dwellers in your organization?
  • The glass ceiling is a familiar term but the glass cliff is relatively new: A widely known phenomenon, backed by experimental research, that women are often installed as leader in times of potential crisis, essentially set up to fail. “We think women are good at crisis, but we also think women make good scapegoats,” University of Exeter Professor Michelle Ryan recently told an INSEAD conference, pointing to former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and British Prime Minister Theresa May as examples.
  • Management scholar Warren Bennis said: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.

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