If we give women the same rights as men when it comes to leadership, we'll wind up with even more incompetent people in power, says a personality science expert
Courtesy of Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
- Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics.
- In this op-ed, he writes that from a moral standpoint, women may deserve the right to be as incompetent as men - but it would be better to elevate the standards for leaders, regardless of their gender.
- Most of the soft skills needed to lead effectively - emotional intelligence, self-awareness, humility, and coachability - are much more feminine, and if we selected leaders on the basis of these traits, we would not only end up with more female leaders, but also more effective leaders.
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Recent discussion of gender equality tends to assume that the world would be fairer if we allow women to have the same rights as men. However, when it comes to leadership, this would be quite problematic. Men are often selected into leadership roles on the basis of their confidence rather than competence; aggression rather than humility; and greed rather than integrity.
Furthermore, we are not particularly good at picking leaders, which is why most leaders are incompetent. Although from a moral standpoint women may deserve the right to be as incompetent as men, it would be better to elevate the standards for leaders, regardless of whether they are female or male. Here are some of the major problems with applying the same criteria we use when we select men to leadership roles to our selection of women.
First, our typical leadership choices - which are predominantly masculine - are influenced by irrelevant factors, such as height. For instance, taller men are often perceived as both more powerful and intelligence, which leads to the assumption that they are also better leaders. Men are generally taller than women, and height strongly influences the results of political elections, particularly in America. As I illustrate in my latest book, "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)", the last time Americans elected a president who was shorter than average was 1896, and in the last hundred years of presidential elections, the shorter of the two final candidates won just 25% of the time. Needless to say, the implication is not that we should pay more attention to women's height, but that we should ignore men's height when we try to infer whether they have any talent for leadership.
How to create more effective leaders
Second, people tend to associate leadership with hyper-masculine features: kick-ass drive, megalomaniac vision, and fearless - if not reckless - risk-taking. Although there is no evidence that such extreme profile is generally beneficial for leadership, there is no doubt that it helps men advance to the top of the corporate ladder. Applying this flawed leadership model to our selection of women leaders results in female leaders who out-male males in masculinity, and they end up being as ineffective as men who display such extreme dark side features. Instead, we would be better off making our choices of leaders more feminine, even when we select male leaders. Note that most of the soft skills that are truly needed to lead more effective today are much more feminine than masculine: emotional intelligence, self-awareness, humility, integrity, and coachability. If we selected leaders on the basis of these traits, we would not only end up with more women leaders, but also more effective leaders.
Another problematic factor that wrongly determines our choices of leaders is narcissism. For instance, academic research shows that narcissistic individuals are often perceived as more creative even when they are not, and that narcissistic people tend to over-index in leadership roles. Although the exact number of narcissists in leadership roles is hard to estimate - mostly because very few have their narcissism tested - several studies suggest that narcissists disproportionately occupy the leadership ranks. One study (from 2013) even estimated the narcissism of US presidents and concluded that on some of the key dimensions of narcissism, such as grandiosity, 80% of the overall population would score lower on narcissism than would the average US president. Although men tend to score higher on narcissism than women, this difference has been decreasing over time: because women's narcissism has been increasing more than men's. It is feasible that such increase are a direct consequence of our calls to get more women to behave in masculine narcissistic ways: "Lean in, regardless if you have the talent to back it up!" or "Don't worry about what other people think of you: If you think you are great, you are" (see my recent TED talk on this). Since we all benefit from having leaders who are less rather than more narcissistic, not least because leaders will be more effective if they are not self-centered, interested in pursuing their own selfish agendas, or detached from reality, it would be better to pick women - and men - for leadership roles when they are not narcissistic. Instead, we appear to be asking women to be as narcissistic as men if they want to be leaders.
Finally, it is well known that when we promote women to leadership roles they are often more qualified than men. This is usually referred to as the sampling bias hypothesis. That is, because women need to be more qualified than men to aspire to the same leadership roles, studies reporting that women are better leaders than men may simply reflect that our standards are unfairly high for women. But I would reverse the argument: our standards are unfairly low for men. Clearly, we are depriving men from the same high-quality control mechanisms that we put in place when we assess female candidates for leadership roles, which is why so many men end up becoming incompetent leaders. For example, an analysis of Fortune 1000 CEOs showed that the tiny minority - just 6% - of CEOs who were women took 30% longer than their male counterparts to reach the top, which explains why female CEOs in these companies are on average four years older than their male counterparts.
There's a better way
Paradoxically, then, we should not be asking, "If women make such great leaders, why aren't there more of them?" Because the logical answer to the question is that women are such great leaders because for women, it's much harder to become a leader at all. If our goal is not just to increase the representation of women in leadership, but also to improve the overall quality of our leaders, we should simply make it as hard for men to become leaders as it is for women - rather than vice-versa.