Many of us can detect bad leadership very easily and can point out which leaders are not living up to good leadership standards.

Yet, in the book Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic poses an interesting question that should alarm us all: if we are so good at recognising bad leadership, why is it that again and again such bad leaders get majority votes and continue wrecking havoc in the political office?

If we intend to seek best outcomes for ourselves and our organisations, we should be increasingly curious how to detect false pretences of good leadership.

The book  explores the reasons behind why most people are hired and promoted based on confidence and charisma, and what that means for organisations and leadership. 

With the title like that, I was expecting some grand ranting about how bad men are at leading and detailing everything bad leaders do wrong.

But the book is really a deep dive into the psychology of leadership standards, and offers key insights into how we can spot leadership potential and competence.

This book needs to be read by anyone who thinks they understand the psychology of leadership as it provides evidence backed insights on how many of our assumptions about leadership are simply wrong.


Core leadership assumptions: time for re-evaluation?

The book questions our deepest perceptions and assumptions about leadership, and in particular the traits that we associate, both consciously and unconsciously, with a great leader.

For decades, we have grown to assume that a strong leader (usually a man) is confident, decisive, and charismatic; a one-man party that gets the job done even if he wrecks havoc in the process.

We tell women that in order to reach leadership positions, they need to exhibit these traits of leadership: If only they appear more confident, interrupt others when they need to make a point, go aggressively after opportunities, stop showing so much empathy and cut corners when needed.

Unfortunately most of these traits are associated also with bad behaviour and there is plenty of scientific evidence that in many cases, many of these “leadership” traits are closely associated with narcissism and even psychopathy.

In fact, studies have shown that narcissism and psychopathy are in particular much higher amongst CEOs than in the average population and are particularly high amongst male CEOs.

We also know that no one really likes to work for a boss like that, and hence the staff turnover is huge given that most people leave because of their boss, not the job.

Yet, as Thomas notes:

“The same psychological characteristics that enable men to emerge as leaders may actually be responsible for their downfall. What it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also sometimes the reverse of, what it takes to do the job (p. 14)

But much of the “get the job” process focuses often on the false binary of assuming that confident people are hugely competent; a problem which, once clarified, can help us to expand our assumptions when it comes to effective leadership.


Confidence vs. competence 

Confidence and competence are often easily confused and associated with each other when it comes to hiring situations and the way we analyse particular behaviours and interactions with others.

An excellent distinction between confidence and competence is outlined in the book:

“Competence is how good you are at something. Confidence is how good you think you are at something” (p. 21).

Confidence is both external and internal: individual’s belief in his or her abilities is internal confidence whereas how the individual appears to others creates external estimations of confidence.

Men, in general, often appear much more confident and this is where the real trap lies: huge confidence displayed by an individual does not equate or result simply in competence.

Competence is something that individuals acquire and develop over time, and ironically women are prone to downplay their competence by being less confident and outspoken hence leaving the impression that they are less confident (= competent).

This is problematic because choosing the most confident individuals is a flawed concept:

“because we choose leaders by how confident they appear rather than by how confident or competent they are, we not only end up choosing more men to lead us but ultimately choose more-incompetent men” (p. 33).

Yet, the skills that are needed to get the job done are in reality very different than those needed to get the job, and most of us want the best staff and best leaders who get the job done:

“There is a world of difference between the personality traits and behaviours it takes to be chosen as a leader and the traits and skills you need to be able to lead effectively” (p. 11).

So what are some of those key competencies that enable good leaders to excel?


3 key leadership competencies

To be an effective and competent leader takes a whole other set of skills than what we are traditionally evaluating and assessing for example in the hiring process (all of these traits are associated more with women).

These key competencies are associated with leaders exhibiting higher emotional Intelligence, and these include transformational leadership, personal effectiveness, and self-awareness.

Transformational leaders focus on changing mindsets rather than barking orders:

“the leader focuses  on changing follower’s attitudes and beliefs and engaging them on a deep emotional level rather than telling them what to do” (p. 93).

They also are able to set a strong, inspiring vision for their organisation and then translate that vision into practical action in a way that makes sense to the staff.

Personal effectiveness is “the ability to navigate everyday interpersonal challenges successfully, both emotionally and socially” (p. 95).

Personal effectiveness is also about understanding how other people might be thinking and feeling, and is grounded in empathy that allows such understanding but also enables the leader to influence others.

This also includes better self-control and resilience, and getting things done.

Self-awareness is traditionally associated with your understanding of your self, an inward journey into your thoughts and feelings, but it also relates strongly to understanding how your behaviour impacts others.

I totally love this quote from the book: “If you really want to understand yourself, skip the six months in an ashram in India, and instead pay attention to how other people see you” (p. 100).

Interestingly, most effective leaders have a great degree of self-awareness and as a result also a much more realistic assessment of their own competence across tasks and roles.


What leadership is really about 

Although much of the book focuses on differences between men and women as leaders and potential leaders, it warns us that the strong focus on particular personality traits (in this case inherently masculine), can also cause problems for men who are good leaders.

For example, men who display more empathy, are not cut-throat, and have a wider range of soft skills, are evaluated as not confident enough and not as gold leadership material.

So, one of the key messages of the book is that we have to and must change our perceptions of strong leaders and work more on re-defining the standards of leadership that are equally applicable regardless of gender:

“leadership is a resource for the organisation- it is good only when employees benefit from it, by boosting their motivation and performance. Elevating the standards of leadership- not simply having more women in charge- should be the top priority” (p. 5).

Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the gigantic interest and uptake of alternative leadership models like Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead where true strength of leadership lies in the extent that a leader can lead through vulnerability, transparency and honest conversations.

Although many of these insights are focused on leadership and management literature, there is no reason why these could not also be applied into scientific fields of study like climate change adaptation.

Am putting my thinking hat on for now and hopefully contribute on this discussion once I’ve had time to think more closely about the field and what our main leadership discipline specific challenges are at the moment.

But I cannot agree more with the core messages of this book: we do need a re-think what effective leadership looks like and stop assuming that confidence equals competence.