Incompetence at the Top?

Last week an article entitled ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?‘, published in the Harvard Business Review, was brought to my attention (thanks Kate Bellingham!). Written by a (male) Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, it included many choice phrases. Examples that took my fancy were

  • we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence
  • manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential
  • arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent

with the characteristics of (over)confidence, charisma and arrogance being perceived as stereotypically male. Chamorro-Premuzic linked his arguments to some published articles if you want to check out some of his conclusions; I’m not going to attempt to analyse his piece in a scholarly way. But it struck a chord with me and clearly with the many individuals (male and female) who retweeted the link, such as the male PVC who replied ‘ The problem is they don’t become leaders but other men appoint them to management jobs (especially in HE!).’ So, when I wrote previously about Leadership Stategies to deal with Jerks, maybe I should have recognized that some of the leaders are the jerks themselves, narcissistic and full of their own self-importance.

Clearly, to identify some of these characteristics as ‘male’ is far too simplistic. Perhaps, to move away from a crude divide by sex, a more important message from the piece is the concept that what gets people to the top are not really very helpful attributes once you’ve reached the dizzy heights of leadership: traits such as the ability to talk fast and bluster or a tendency to concentrate on self-serving tasks rather than good citizenry. Nevertheless, anyone in academia (or, I guess, business) will recognize that these qualities do often get you rather a long way, as is manifest by considering some of the high flyers – the jerks – I wrote about before.

Nevertheless, even if that male:female split is crude, it is clear that many of us do think in those sorts of terms. And what does that mean about women reaching the top? The THE ran some articles about female VC’s in their most recent issue, highlighting their paucity and the issues they have faced.  Again some comments raised by male leaders in this context struck a chord, or perhaps I should say a sensitive nerve.

  • Women are more caring and [are] therefore better suited to and naturally drawn to teaching duties
  • It [was] not male bias that prevented more women from leading universities but women’s refusal to ‘play the games’ needed to reach the top
  • They [the males] wanted to spare women the ‘rough and tumble ‘ of leadership –  referred to in the article as ‘a typical example of ‘heroic, paternalistic masculinity’

Those comments, read alongside the Harvard Business Review article, make strikingly similar points from a rather different perspective. The males are admitting that the way they got to the top is by ‘playing games’ rather than developing leadership potential and the patronising tone of voice of the last comment is rather terrifying. Furthermore, as Julia King (VC of Aston currently) confirmed, if you do join in the rough and tumble you end up being termed ‘frightening’ in tones far from approving, an attitude that Shirley Pearce (former VC of Loughborough) I know has equally experienced with annoyance. For many women the choice seems to be either be demure and restrained and get nowhere, or be tough and speak out and end up being hammered as scarey, fierce – or accused, as I was, of leaving scars.

So what attributes are assigned stereotypically to women in a complimentary way that could also lead to progression to the top? Last term I attended a fascinating talk by Michelle Ryan of Exeter University, who has come up with the phrase the Glass Cliff: in business too often it seems women CEO’s are the ones heading up failing companies. It is easy for the headlines then to scream that having women leaders mean companies fail (implying they are falling off the metaphorical cliff), but Ryan examined which came first – the women at the top or the company failing. It turns out that it is the very skills that women are perceived as having, again stereotypically, such as being compassionate for their staff or good communicators, are ones which are attractive to those in a position to appoint a new CEO when a company is already in trouble.

To test these conclusions, Ryan conducted various experiments in which study participants were given descriptions of mythical companies in various states of financial health along with the CVs of fictitious candidates for the top position, men and women with roughly equal experience. When companies were failing participants were far more likely to ‘appoint’ the woman than when the company was doing just fine. Drilling down into why this was it turned out to be precisely because stereotypical female skills were seen as valuable when morale within a company was low and it was tearing itself apart. If, on the other hand, all was hunky dory then the (stereotypical) confident/arrogant male leader was seen as right for the job. Again, you can find some of this research about the Glass Cliff described in an earlier Harvard Business Review article.

So, the moral of this story is twofold. First and foremost, we should all try to jettison crude stereotypes. There are plenty of articulate, compassionate men out there and plenty of confident, outspoken women. It is even possible to be both compassionate and outspoken; these aren’t either/or characteristics. It is not unreasonable to feel that different attributes may be appropriate for different leadership situations (just as a business may be in trouble, so may a university department – or indeed a whole university) but they shouldn’t de facto naively be associated with one sex or the other. Furthermore as we reject these obvious and unhelpful gender stereotypes we mustn’t unconsciously hang on to thinking that a compassionate man is somehow wimpish or that a forceful woman is frightening.

However we, or at least those seeking out and choosing new leaders, should think harder about the skills needed for those at the top of any type of organisation. Confidence may be necessary but arrogance almost certainly is a handicap. Playing games is only likely to be constructive if everyone else is being Machiavellian. Even if they are it may still be a mistake to try to double guess how many bluff and counterbluff moves are going on. In general thoughtful analysis, a clear articulation of the issues coupled with awareness of how decisions may impact on the workforce and simply playing it straight really may be a better strategy for genuine leadership. I hope selection committees will think a little deeper about what really matters and not stick with imagining tired old stereotypes actually fit the job description.


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8 Responses to Incompetence at the Top?

  1. Steve says:

    Once again a very interesting and thought provoking piece Athene. I recently watched Question Time on the BBC and an MP (a female MP as it happened although their gender is not relevant) made a point that if women had been in charge perhaps we would not have gone to war in Iraq and the financial crisis would not have happened. Gender stereotypes (females are more caring, compassionate etc) were then trotted out as examples. My wife was particularly enraged that women were being pigeonholed to behave only in one way, almost as a ying-yang to men! The calming influence of a man’s ambition and stupidity….not particularly helpful. In my experience in academia women are just as capable as men of displaying the very best and worst of human characteristics. Not surprising really since they are human after all, not some separate species to men! I never bought (wholesale) the notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. The traits so often attributed to men can display themselves very well across the human race. When it comes to leadership I am reminded of the adage that someone once said to me before we had an election for Head of School. There were many candidates, some who seemed more eager than others to do the job, perhaps a little too eager. The adage: “It’s rather like a Catch 22 situation. You’d have to mad to want to do it and you don’t want a mad man (or woman) doing it”.

  2. Abby Kavner says:

    Using stereotypes in decision making is lazy thinking–especially troublesome for important decisions such as choosing leaders for organizations. A part of an antidote is for a search committee and/or nominations committee to do some thinking and writing about the qualities the organization wants in its leaders. It helps to move the discussion away from stupid and wrong stereotypes about “male” vs “female” leaders (which completely falls apart under any scrutiny) and shifts focus to real qualities of real people: strategic thinking, intellectual engagement, team-player, communication skills, ethical integrity and transparency, stewardship.

  3. Alex says:

    I was wondering if there are any specific reasons for your dislike of arrogance and/or overconfidance?

    I am in no way suggesting that those two qualities are indespensible for good leadership, however a healthy dose of overconfidance coupled with humility and ability to learn from mistakes instead of hiding behind “finger pointing” or “everyone to blame but me” culture seems to me a good recipe for advancements and innovation. To my mind the right mix of overconfidence and/or arrogance equals to ambition. This recent Nature article also spings into mind. Although speculation, I think the authors approach overconfidance from an interesting prospective.

    • I think it’s because I don’t think overconfidence and humility go together. Overconfidence in someone to me means being too sure of themselves to allow themselves to admit they’ve made mistakes. Confidence in itself is an excellent and necessary attribute; overconfidence I don’t think is. Likewise arrogance, as I mean it, implies a belief that only they know the answers. I don’t think that is a recipe for making things work.

  4. Alex says:

    That’s an interesting point you make, however you seem to approach it from very black-and-white prospective. I don’t think its a “have” it or “doesn’t have” quality that a person posses, but rather a sliding scale. So if you go too far with confidance one ends up with a severe case of unwarranted overestimation of ones ability and knowledge. But it also works the other way too. So not enough of confidence and self beliefe and person ends up being pessimistic about everything he or she does. Thus, not attempting anything new that lies outside of their comfort zone. That is also very undesirable trait in a leader, as nothing new is going to be attempted.

    So what I mean by overconfidence: something I have never done before, therefore have no reason to believe I will succeed in doing the said thing, but I am willing to try very hard and going to proceed with caution. Some things may work some things probably won’t but I will learn on the way. Where as confidence by itself means I am a good leader of people but do not feel comfortable with things I haven’t attempted in the past, therefore I feel I may not have the required knowledge to direct others.

    This is what I think makes a difference between a competent leader thats good at his or her job and a good leader that innovates and pushes the boundaries of what can be done by him or her and people in their command.

    • Then we differ in how we are using the words. I think confidence means being willing to try new things (something I have frequently discussed on my blog before such as here and here) and discovering you can succeed at them, whereas overconfidence means doing things even if other people know you’re no good at it because you’re blind to your failings. I would describe as competence what you are calling confidence. We probably don’t disagree on content only semantics.

  5. Steve says:

    “Success is often achieved by those that don’t know that failure is inevitable” Coco Chanel

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