Finding Real Leaders Regardless of Gender

March 14, 2019

Finding Real Leaders Regardless of Gender

Although women make up a small percentage of senior leadership, female leaders are often rated as more competent—by both bosses and subordinates—than their male peers. And yet, many organizations continue to equate leadership potential with a handful of personality traits that don’t correlate to success. 

Collecting decades of research on leadership, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes the case for new processes to put the right people in charge in his book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it).

How do we know when a leader is a good leader? 
This should be a really simple question but it isn't, mostly because leadership is rather complex today. In the past it was predominantly about physical skills and courage, but over the years it evolved to become rather more intellectual and emotional. Think about what a typical leader does today: s/he makes decisions, thinks, reads, listens, writes, and communicates....there are no obvious visible signs of ability. Instead, we need to judge the consequences of their behaviors and then the issue is that most of those very consequences will also be determined by other factors. Having said that, in organizations we are able to quantify the impact that different leaders have on their teams, by evaluating team morale and performance. Thus the answer to the question is "a good leader is someone who positively impacts their teams, turning a group of individuals into a high-performing unit." And a bad leader is the opposite, someone who antagonizes, annoys, and alienates their followers and subordinates or has a detrimental effect on their performance. 

How is confidence confused with competence? How does this play out in male and female leadership? 
Because competence is hard to judge intuitively, we are often deceived by people who come across as assertive and confident, as if that signified talent or ability. The scientific evidence on this is clear: There is a very weak connection between how good people think they are and how good they actually are. However, when people are unaware of their limitations, they come across as confident and that dominance is typically interpreted as courage or talent. This is true more for men than women, particularly when we have a baseline to evaluate how good they actually are. So we forgive or even celebrate displays of hubris and overconfidence in men, while censoring or disliking them in women. 

Are narcissists and psychopaths really more prevalent in leadership? 
They are, though estimates vary between 2X or 5X. Unfortunately we lack good measures of leader narcissism or psychopathy for most leaders, but there is no doubt that we fall in love with lots of traits that overindex in narcissistic and psychopathic individuals, especially when they are men: fearless risk taking, authenticity, self-centeredness, arrogance, bravado, and charisma. These traits evolved as adaptations for short-term interactions and that's why they work as enablers of leadership emergence. At the same time, the best leaders are typically the opposite: humble, self-controlled, other-oriented, self-aware, and prosocial. 

What are the advantages of female leaders? 
Meta-analytic studies show that men and women are more similar than different on most leadership potential qualities, but women have a slight advantage overall by showing: (a) more transformational leadership, (b) better transactional leadership, (c) less laissez faire and autocratic leadership, (d) better communication, and (e) more EQ. 

What are the characteristics of successful leaders, regardless of gender? 
You generally want leaders to be more competent, socially-skilled, ethical, self-aware, and coachable. I would also add curiosity and learning ability as key drivers of leadership, particularly in a world where past knowledge and expertise are less important than what a person can learn.

How can we find these leadership qualities in potential leaders? 
Using data and scientifically sound tools, which requires distrusting our instincts. And that's the only way to do it in a gender-blind way: No matter how much unconscious bias training interviewers had, they will never be able to ignore that the person in front of them is male or female and what stereotypes that evokes. 

Are good leaders made or born—or can we cultivate good leadership? 
They are both, but we underrate the impact of nature and early childhood experiences, mostly because we prefer to feel in control. Nature and early upbringing experiences are no destiny, but they constrain or enhance people's potential to emerge as leader and be effective once they emerge. This is why even at an early age people differ in intelligence, curiosity, extraversion, and EQ....the key is to use this information to help people get better. In any domain of competence, training, coaching, and development will work more if you select people with more potential and you match them to tasks they are already naturally suited for and interested in.

The Authors: 

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, Professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University and University College London, and author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it).