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Book Review Week 40

Some People Get a Pass: Why It's Critical to Broaden Our Definition of Good Leadership

Many of the qualities we rely on to signal leadership ability are not only gender-biased. They are also associated with poor outcomes. A new book suggests how companies can do better.

This review was originally published in Men and Masculinities and is reprinted here by permission of the author. Please find a link to the original article here.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press. 2019. 218 pp. $25.00 (paper)

From the Oval Office to the c-Suite, men continue to hold court. Women account for only 23.7 percent of U.S. congressional seats, 8 percent of research university presidents, and 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Of the latter, only one is a woman of color. And the highest glass ceiling in the U.S., the presidency, remains intact. While impressive women struggle to make inroads into executive leadership, underwhelming men have no problem becoming leaders in politics and industry.

In Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic investigates why men so easily come to dominate the upper echelons of work organizations. While women face many barriers on the path to leadership, Chamorro-Premuzic argues that the more pressing social problem is how easy it is for incompetent men to become leaders. Changing and specifying the criteria for good leadership, he contends, will result in better workplaces for everyone.

Drawing from decades of social science research, Chamorro-Premuzic shows how qualities understood to signal leadership are both tied to poor outcomes and associated with men. This eases men’s ascent up the organizational hierarchy. Moreover, these attributes do not lead to effective leadership and may even be destructive with potentially disastrous consequences for the wellbeing of organizations and their workers.

This book makes three arguments about why incompetent men often lead. First, the tendency to prefer confidence over competence disproportionately rewards men. Although women and men report equal levels of confidence, women’s confidence often goes unrecognized because they are more likely to be ignored, interrupted, and scrutinized. Meanwhile, men are more likely to be overconfident thanks to the positive reinforcement of male privilege. Second, rates of narcissism and psychopathy are higher among leaders and among men. Finally, leaders are expected to exude charisma—even though this is not associated with effectiveness—and women tend to be rated less charismatic. Overconfidence, narcissism, psychopathy, and charisma can all lead to negative outcomes, such as recklessness, burnout, disengagement, and underperformance. Even worse, these qualities may result in anti-social behaviors, such as bullying, harassment, and crime. 

In the remainder of the book, Chamorro-Premuzic makes the case for better leadership. He argues that women have greater potential as leaders, but not because of inherent differences between women and men. Rather, he identifies how women have higher rates of emotional intelligence (EQ). A higher EQ is tied to transformational leadership (for example, Oprah), personal effectiveness, and self-awareness. Lastly, Chamorro-Premuzic concludes that leaders should be selected based on intellectual, social, and psychological capital, and provides concrete criteria for each to avoid biased interpretations of these qualities. 

Chamorro-Premuzic’s audience is primarily students and practitioners, reflecting his role as Chief Talent Scientist at Manpower Group, co-founder of Deeper Signals and Metaprofiling, and Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University. He straddles the academic and corporate worlds, and the book captures his ability to speak to audiences within and beyond the Ivory Tower. 

In doing so, Chamorro-Premuzic presents a new business case for gender diversity. But rather than advocating for more women leaders, he calls for a transformation in leadership. He cites rising rates of narcissism in women as indicative of the pitfalls of telling women to act like men. If women merely lean in or model men, especially incompetent ones, it will only reinforce bad behavior. Rather than reforming the women, Chamorro-Premuzic calls for a change in leadership that will benefit everyone.

But will a rising tide lift all boats? Gender scholarship would suggest otherwise. As jobs and occupations change in status and pay, the gendering of the profession follows suit. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, computer programming was gender-typed as women’s work because it required careful attention to detail. Over time, however, coding became a job for “geeky men” as the technology boom brought more money and status. This leads me to question whether changing the qualifications for leadership will result in more women leaders or just new ideals for elite masculinities. 

Furthermore, Chamorro-Premuzic presents another “bottom line” rationale for gender diversity—a model forged by neoliberal feminism equating women’s liberation with a right to participate in the market economy. Yet, this very participation has long disenfranchised women of color. Feminist interventions that do not consider the intersections of gender and race often fail to address the unique obstacles facing women of color who are less likely to be recognized for their management potential than white women. However, Chamorro-Premuzic says very little about race and ethnicity or, for that matter, social class.

Nevertheless, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? has much to offer practitioners, academics, and students. It is an accessible and easy read that prompts readers to question their own gut assumptions about what makes a good leader and imagine alternatives for leading an effective and hopefully more inclusive workplace. This alone is a worthwhile place to start change.

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