Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?

Jenny Harrison




There is no denying that women’s path to leadership positions is paved with many barriers including a very thick glass ceiling. But a much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men, and the fact that we tend to equate leadership with the very psychological features that make the average man a more inept leader than the average woman. The result is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody’s detriment.

Okay, so I realise this is a "click bait" type of question!  And it's not actually a question I've posed myself, but is the subject of a Harvard Business Review article that I recently came across.  While the article is a few years old, the topic remains very relevant - particularly in light of doubts about the competence of some of the male politicians on the global stage at the moment. 

It's an interesting read about a topic that we touch on in our inclusive leadership/management sessions - i.e. to what extent do our unconscious biases drive our decisions about who should progress in an organisation and what it takes to be successful?  How often do we confuse confidence with competence?  I'm sure we've all seen it - the person (usually, but not always, a man) who gets promoted even though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they're not as competent as they should be, and/or they believe themselves to be.  While others, who may be exceptionally conscientious and competent but possibly not as confident (often, but not always, the women) get overlooked.  

Confidence can be beguiling - when someone is confident, it feels easier for us to trust them and their abilities, even if we have nagging doubts them.  This is because of the way our brains are wired.  Most of our decision-making is driven by a range of unconscious cognitive biases and if someone is confident, it's likely that they will better fit the picture in our minds of what it takes to be a good leader.  How often do we have a picture in our minds about the kind of person and/or attributes that are necessary for a particular role?  And to what extent do we notice and place a greater value on the information that supports this picture, and overlook or place a lower value on information that contradicts it?   

The problem with placing a high value on confidence, as the article points out, is that "overconfidence and arrogance are inversely related to leadership talent - the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group".  The article cites various studies which suggest that women, rather than men, have the attributes associated with being the best leaders.  For example, they are "more likely to elicit respect and pride from their followers, communicate their vision effectively, empower and mentor subordinates, approach problem solving in a more flexible and creative way (all characteristics of “transformational leadership”), as well as fairly reward direct reports".  They also typically have higher levels of emotional intelligence, humility, sensitivity, consideration and are less arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than men.  This certainly chimes with what I've heard in my management and leadership training sessions.   

So how can we minimise the impact of these biases?  How can we stop our unconscious tendency to prefer confidence over competence influencing the decisions we make?  

First of all, we have to acknowledge that this is the way we're wired - it's not possible or realistic to completely eliminate all of our preferences and biases.  After all, bias is what keeps us alive, it's our "human danger detector".  What we can do, however, is start to notice the way we're wired and how this impacts on our decision-making, and challenge ourselves to make more of our decisions conscious.  We need to be clear about the key competencies required for a particular role and then measure someone against those, rather than against the pictures in our heads of what the "successful candidate" looks like.  We also need to think about how we would justify the decisions that we're making - how would that other person see things, and how much evidence do you really have that someone is as competent as you believe them to be and/or they say they are?   Finally, give your peers permission to call you out (constructively!) if they can see that your management or decisions are biased - we all have "blind spots" that others will be able to see more easily than us.  After all, great leadership starts with self-awareness.