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Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

BroadMinded Director Sarah on what organisational psychologists have revealed about broken models of leadership and how to fix them

It is so often the case that a message is most powerfully conveyed by its least obvious exponent. And so it was with the brilliant talk that organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (a man) recently gave to Broadminded (a women’s group) on fixing the global problem of incompetent male leadership. 

Refreshingly, Tomas did not trot out the tired mantra that ‘we should have more women at the top because diversity is good for results’, a line which even we find nauseating not least because it is too generic to inspire activity. Equally compellingly, he did not tar all men with the same brush, but instead acknowledged that while there are great male leaders out there, damaging trends exist which cut across the breadth of male leadership.

So what’s the problem?

It is a disturbing feature of our cultural and psychological makeup that, for reasons described below, we are inclined to follow people unaware of their own limitations. We are draw to the confident, and yet external confidence too often masks underlying incompetence, and untrustworthiness. The result is lower productivity and creativity and ultimately, lower fulfilment and happiness. Googling ‘My manager is…’ will give you a sense of it. 

Why do we allow this to happen?

Tomas gives three reasons: 

  1. We mistake confidence for competence. This happens repeatedly through history and across geographies. We find confidence compelling, no matter how illegitimate. Worryingly - but tellingly - studies have shown there is very little link between an individual’s own perceived and actual abilities. 

  2. We look for charisma first. We want leaders who are, first and foremost, charming and entertaining. Consider what we really mean when we say ‘they are good, but not really a leader’. Evidence suggests that the most competent leaders are humble rather than charismatic, almost to the point of boringness (Angela Merkel). In stark contrast, the world has produced a wealth of charismatic leaders with a propensity for reckless and irrational decision making. 

  3. The allure of the narcissist. We really struggle to resist it. People with grandiose and megalomaniacal visions often tap into our own little sprinkling of narcissism. We’ve always admired famous people, but our admiration of people who admire themselves (think Kim and Kanye) has been on the rise for decades. 

These three ingredients blend to produce a crop of leaders who are both unaware of their limitations and pleased with themselves. They see leadership as something they are entitled to, often lack empathy and self-control and are driven by their ego, resulting in them making irrational decisions.


What can be done?

Luckily for us, Tomas has outlined a few things we can do to address the problem ourselves: 

  1. More women leaders (of course)! This is not a numbers game; it’s about competence. Women, on average, score higher in trustworthiness and EQ but importantly, generally score very low in narcissism and ego. This often makes for a less volatile and altogether safer pair of hands. 

  2. Distrust your instincts. Don’t follow your ‘intuition’ when it comes to leadership. Focus less on the impression people make, through which we are all inevitably projecting our own prejudices and biases. Focus instead on their underlying competence. It is not easy to overcome this, so a shortcut is to simply ignore that inner gut 'feeling'. 

  3. Don’t lower your standards for female leaders but raise the standard for male leaders. This means not asking women to behave more like incompetent men (i.e. asking them to 'lean in' or encouraging them to self-promote more). But it also means not ruling out men who lack the traditional masculine features that match our flawed leadership archetypes; while the issues Tomas raises are largely male in character, they are by no means present in all men, many of whom are also overlooked.  


For more talks like Tomas’, see our event calendar here: [XXX]​

Written By

Sarah Malik

Last Updated

10th August 2020


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Key Takeaway

While there are great male leaders out there, damaging trends exist which cut across the breadth of male leadership.

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