Thursday 21 March 2019

Book Review: Incompetent Men Leaders

I love Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s new book, ‘Why do so many Incompetent Men become Leaders’. Actually, I was already sold before even opening it, as I’ve long thought the skills and attitudes required for today’s leaders are more likely to be held by women than men. In ‘The Social Organization’ I note that I personally expect to see a fairly rapid reversal in the pay gap and that we will soon need to start thinking about how we keep men’s pay at something close to that received by women. (I also suggest that we should expect to see business start to look and feel a lot more like HR, and for similar reasons, that we don’t have to worry about dressing up ‘soft skills’ as something more masculine.)

But there’s plenty of additional thinking and evidence around women’s leadership roles in TCP’s book.

Firstly, I do agree that we’re starting from a very low base. TCP notes that most people would struggle to name one famous business leader - other than Siri and Alexa apparently! (and isn’t it interesting that the deepest thinking business AI, Watson, is named after a man).

I also agree that we’re misinterpreting the traits we need in leaders today (that’s my argument in TSO too). We miss negatives like overconfidence and self-absorption or misread them as something like charisma. And we don’t realise that whilst women are busy developing others, men are focusing on advancing their own careers. “The result is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence.”

TCP singles out two clear problems which all affect men most - narcissism and psychopathy.

However, there are more nuanced issues too. In particular, we assume confidence indicates competence. I’m rather conflicted on this. I tend to think that confidence, and even over confidence helps, not just to get a job but to do that job too. It expands opportunities, allowing people to take on more projects and get more experience, and in a range of situations helps them to perform better too. Eg TCP notes that overconfident CEOs can often attract more suppliers and investors and their firms have lower employee turnover. Their aura of success creates a new reality around the because people believe in them. Well, that’s OK - that’s largely what leadership is about. TCP’s examples of dentists and airplane pilots don’t really relate here. I’m not fussed at all about my dentist’s confidence levels, but I don’t want a nervous CEO. And yes, overconfidence may just hide insecurity, but I think we all suffer from imposter syndrome to a large extent. And projecting confidence makes us feel more confident internally too. It’s often a good thing when we’re more confident than our actual competence would suggest.

TCP also takes a swipe at Brexit, suggesting that David Cameron suffered from a typically masculine over confidence in his ability to gain a stay vote in the referendum. Actually, I think that was fine - I believe in democracy and he gave the country a chance to say what it wanted. But since the referendum we’re suffered from a crisis of under confidence, with Theresa May capitulating to the EU (eg not arguing forcefully for the need to discuss withdrawal and future trade agreement together which could have negated the need for a backstop) and being unwilling to promote and argue for a direction in her cabinet, government or parliament, rather than just bunkering down and waiting for time to run out. Personally I’d have preferred Cameron, or even Boris Johnson, or possibly even Donald Trump to run the negotiations. Or Andrea Leadsome, Penny Mordaunt, or Liz Truss. Or, of course, Margaret Thatcher. (Please note I’m not a fan of Donald Trump but I suspect that in this particular case, he might have achieved a better outcome for the UK than Theresa May. Though it’s interesting that whilst TCP seems very careful in stating he is not calling Elon Musk a narcissist, he doesn’t bother flagging this in his discussions on Donald Trump. Or Steve Jobs, or especially Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi.)

Possible TCP’s best argument on over confidence is that whilst men often only need to appear confident to succeed, women have to confident, competent and caring. In fact, we can be put off confident women - just as we can by friendly, empathetic and agreeable men. But that just means we need to be more robust about applying the right criteria, and consistently selecting people against them.

We also need to ensure that confidence is complemented by competence, which can be difficult to assess, and can often be confused with having had good luck. So we also need good feedback, and not just on our strengths. “In fact, negative feedback - feedback that highlights a deficit in potential or performance - is the most useful type.” TCP also criticises the recent trend to eliminate negative comments from performance reviews. “This trend turns the performance review into a futile exercise ingratiation where the best that employees can hope for is the ability to read between the lines to gauge what their managers want from them.”

However, for feedback to work, we also need to ensure people are aware of their weaknesses and have a realistic sense of their limitations.  So we also need to select for self-awareness, especially as experts and clueless people often have simile self perceptions of their abilities.”The most inept individuals will also make the last accurate evaluations of their talents, grossly overestimating where they stack up against their peers. Meanwhile, the most competent people will exhibit much self-criticism and self-doubt, especially relative to their expertise.” (The graph is from TCP’s presentation at AHRI last time I was speaking there.) Once again, I’m a bit conflicted on this. Eg I think our tendency to enhance our egos rather than accept a brutal reality check is generally a positive characteristic (especially as so much of how people see our performance will be distorted anyway), though this can obviously be overdone.

So, for me, we should continue to fake it till we make it, and in fact I often work with (mainly women) HR groups to get better at this.…

The book also includes an interesting chapter on charisma, which I’m not going to review as I’ve already gone on long enough, but I draw a similar conclusion to the above - we need to avoid confusing charisma for broader leadership performance, but again, charisma is a generally useful thing. TCP notes companies with charismatic CEOs often have inflated market values - that’s not a basis for sustainable success, but it’s a nice enabler. And he also suggests charisma often links with being highly connected within the organisational network, which again is a very positive enabler for leadership roles (see notes on organisational networks in ‘The Social Organization’). We just need to assess connection, not use ‘charisma’ as a sloppy substitute.

There are some other interesting sections in the book too, eg suggestions all of with which I agree that potential is more important than talent, and on the importance of intellectual capital, and especially social capital - which I think should also be seen as an important aspect of leadership potential. And also on the link of leadership to culture - “There is as much variability in groups’ and organisations’ cultures as there is in individuals’ values.”

Putting all of this together, TCP recommends that we focus less on diversity programmes aimed at placing more women at the top of business and instead change the competencies we use, which will have the supplementary benefit of selecting more women.

I don’t go that far - I think diversity programmes are really helpful and deserve a key place. I do agree though that their purpose shouldn’t be to help women emulate men - eg I’ve never thought ‘Lean In’ was a particularly good idea. (TCP seems to suggest this may have contributed to a rise in narcisstic women.)


Importantly, this isn’t about training leaders - some characteristics like leadership are hard to change, and leadership development isn’t working (see another slide from AHRI). “Bad leaders are unlikely to turn into talented, inspirational, or high performing leaders”. Good coaching does work, but I still think TCP is right to emphasise the need to select leaders based on appropriate criteria that treat confidence and charisma with care, and especially don’t favour narcissists and psychopaths. And formal assessment mechanisms which assess people appropriately against these criteria.

Or, as I often summarise it, we should never recruit or promote anyone into leadership unless they are interested in people, and competent and committed to lead them.

This may require organisation changes too. My favourite option in many firms is a dual career stream.

If not this, there are increasing opportunities for self management. Or we should get people to vote for their own leaders (more simply, project based organisations may be able to allow people to just select their own individual line managers).

If these options don’t work, I think the time may be coming for HR to take over and start to line manage everyone in the business, allowing incompetent men (and women) just to manage the performance of these people on projects. Since HR is mainly populated by women, that might be another way of getting more competent women into leadership positions too?

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