Don't Confuse Confidence with Competence

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic left Argentina, his birth country, because its government had despoiled its rich resources and become corrupt. Setting out to understand why, he became a psychologist studying leadership. He noticed most leaders in government and business were male, and that Argentina’s leaders had been, one after the other, male and bad.

 In 2013, backed by worldwide data that reported most workers leave their jobs because of their bosses, he dared ask a question out loud in a paper for The Harvard Business Review, titled: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” It’s’s most-read article, and he still hears from people about it. In a book with the same title, issued this month, he says, “I argued that the underrepresentation of women in leadership was not due to their lack of ability or motivation, but to our inability to detect incompetence in men.”

 He claims we misinterpret men’s character flaws, calling over-confidence and self-absorption, “charisma,” of “leadership potential,” when we’d be smarter to ask for real evidence of experience that inspired and motivated people who function smoothly together to meet goals.

 The book comes in perfect time for the leadup to 2020. We’ll be weighing a group of women and men more diverse than ever, for longer than ever, as would-be leaders of our country. They’ll face off against someone who, whatever you think of him, oozes self-assurance, always very well pleased with himself.

 There’s evidence of increased profits when women are part of leadership. But Chamorro-Premuzic doesn’t think it’s because of all those diversity programs that he says wrong-headedly focus on women’s imitating male leaders: acting confident, faking it until you make it, or just leaning in. We’d be better off understanding how women and productive men actually operate in our fast-changing work environment.

 His book is full of studies that show women’s transformative skill, communicating a vision, being flexible in solving problems, and empowering their subordinates. By contrast, other studies find that male leaders are less likely to connect with or reward their subordinates for actual performance, more focused on their own career than developing others. The rates for narcissism and psychopathic tendencies among corporate CEOs, mostly male—sorry, guys—are three and four times the general population rate.

 Generally, he says, the differences between male and female capability aren’t huge. Yet sadly, those male managers, who show empathy, are more flexible and don’t pretend to know it all, tend to suffer from worse perceptions than their female counterparts. Clearly, we need to revamp our notions of what top tier talent looks like. This book warns that we’re looking for the wrong traits—but with a subtitle (How to Fix It), we also get tools for rethinking what traits actually serve a nation or a company best. It’s an insightful read that shows us what to look for—and what to watch out for!

—Rickey Gard Diamond