How incompetent men fail their way to the top

Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says there's a simple reason incompetent men become leaders

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 26, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)

Rodrigo Duterte; Donald Trump (Getty/Noel Celis/Alex Wong)
Rodrigo Duterte; Donald Trump (Getty/Noel Celis/Alex Wong)

It is perplexing to think that although humans have unprecedented, near-instant access to more historical information than at any point in history, we are in a political epoch characterized by a rise in authoritarians being voted in worldwide. One expert described the current situation as constituting a “global democratic recession." This democratic recession is helmed by — for lack of a better word — incompetent men.  The study of incompetent men, and how they ascend to undeserved leadership positions, has been a personal interest of leadership psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. As a child in Argentina, Chamorro-Premuzic observed that his country's politics were characterized by a series of incompetent, mostly-male leaders; ultimately, the politics motivated him to leave the country. “I promised myself that I would do what it took to understand — and help fix — this toxic side of leadership,” he writes in his new book, "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It)," which was published on March 12.

The book — which should be required reading for anyone who has suffered under the thumb of incompetent male leaders, or who fears they are one — seeks to answer the question: “How can rational people who have their best interests at heart fall for charismatic con artists who promise them the impossible while pursuing harmful agendas and corrupt selfish interests?”

Sounds familiar, no? In the book, Chamorro-Premuzic shares a few explanatory theories. The first is that overconfidence can easily be masked as competence, especially when displayed by men. The second and third reasons are that narcissists and psychopaths often rise to the top because the very traits that stem from these profiles —  taking big risks, lacking empathy while taking those risks, and having grandiose ideas — are the same traits that are celebrated in capitalist workplace culture.

The idea, then, is not that all men are incompetent, but that incompetent men are frequently rewarded by society. “The more I have studied leaders and leadership, the more I believe that the much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men,” he explains, suggesting our expectations should be higher for vetting leaders.

In this interview, Salon spoke with Chamorro-Premuzic about narcissism, politics, and upcoming 2020 presidential election. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nicole Karlis: I’d like to just start by asking how you would define a competent leader?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: A competent leader is somebody who has a positive effect on his or her teams, subordinates, followers, and organization. Typically, in companies you would look at what the team level of engagement is, what the team level of morale and productivity is, what the revenues, profits, and innovation metrics are; the better the leaders, the higher all of these metrics are. When leaders are incompetent you get the opposite: low morale, low productivity, low engagement, high burnout, stress and anxiety. So we measure whether a leader is competent or not based on how he or she impacts the team.

Yes, I got that sense from your book. It's more about, not the actual leader excelling but having the leader's staff and the organization excelling.

Exactly. And though this may sound like common sense it doesn't happen as often. Most people evaluate their leaders in organizations by their bosses. Typically, leadership should be about managing down and doing something good for your team. The irony is that we evaluate leaders based on how they manage up. So it makes sense if somebody is very busy politicking, sucking up or managing reputations they might get noticed. That's the opposite of what you actually want.

Totally. In the book you talk a lot about how when women display stereotypical masculine traits, they are often dismissed for not conforming to expectations of their gender. Conversely, when they display stereotypical feminine traits they're dismissed for not being a typical leader in the sense of how the world views it. I'm curious if you think that this conversation around leadership and gender should be less about gender itself and more about these traits individually?

Exactly, yeah. It should be that. I know that it's hard for people to ignore gender because it's the easiest thing to see and it's the one that makes people interested in the conversation. If anything it should be about whether a more feminine or masculine style of leadership is better. I think because we overselected for hyper-masculinity for so long it makes sense that now there is a shortage of people who have empathy, who are altruistic, who have integrity, who are humble. Then you get the #MeToo movement. You know?


So yeah, women face an impossible task because if they don't lean in, we pretend or just assume that, "oh, they're just not confident enough and they're not leadership material." When they do, we are scared of them because they are more masculine than they should be or what we expect them to be. Also, men who have these feminine traits and qualities are certainly disadvantaged or hurt because if a man portrays a healthy degree of self-doubt or insecurity, we assume that he's a pussycat and that he's not tough enough to be a leader. When in fact, those are exactly the things we need in leaders.

You argue that incompetence is masked by overconfidence, specifically in men, and that oftentimes these incompetent leaders have narcissistic or psychopathic tendencies or they are a narcissist or a psychopath. I'm wondering, in your opinion, how can people in organizations know if their bosses are narcissists or psychopaths. I know you mention personality tests that are designed, obviously, to identify this, but I think from my perspective many organizations aren't vetting for this. If an employee or country is being led by a narcissist, how do they really know?

The only way is to really put them through a proper assessment. The tricky thing for people to understand is, again, here it's about degrees. So the degrees of narcissism. A bit of narcissism is okay because it either might be charming, or that person has a good vision, but basically, if that person is overly entitled, if they're unable to accept their mistakes, if they're blaming others for their mistakes and taking credit for other people's achievements, and if they get very aggressive and defensive when they are criticized, if they can't connect with others because they lack empathy and they spend a lot of time just talking about themselves and they have an unrealistically high self-confidence, then you can assume they are narcissistic.

Psychopathic tendencies are harder to judge but they will be clear when you see somebody who is very very fearless, extremely risk taking, impulsive, and who manipulates other and essentially doesn't care about hurting other people. That's why Bernie Madoff is a very good example.

Once spotted, what are these organizations and the world supposed to do with narcissistic and sociopathic leaders? I'm curious, in your opinion, if there is any room for compassion and empathy for these people and any room for tolerance. I do think there is a stigma right now about being, obviously, labeled a narcissist or psychopath.

Yeah, exactly. That's why I would rather speak of narcissistic tendencies or if psychopathic even sounds too strong, antisocial tendencies.

I think if they are mild, you can expect people to improve with coaching. The key is that they have some self-awareness to understand that they're doing something wrong and also that they have the will to change and improve. If somebody is extremely narcissistic by definition, they won't acknowledge that they need to change. If somebody is very psychopathic, they won't be interested in any type of feedback. They will retaliate. If anything, they will pretend to change but they will manipulate you and be destructive. So in general, for about 30 percent of leaders you can expect coaching to produce improvements of around 30 percent. So it's not very bad, but it also means that a lot of them would be beyond coachability.

You talk briefly in the book about the evolutionary benefit of narcissism. I'm wondering if you can elaborate on that for our readers and how that impacts all genders?

First of all, it has to do with the bright side of overconfidence because even though overconfidence in the long run might get you in trouble. You know, if you think you can cross the road when you can't you will be hit by a bus and so on. The same happens with careers and relationships. Ironically, when people seem very confident, even if they are deluded like in the case of narcissists, they will be able to fool other people into thinking that they're smart, or competent or even leader-like. So that's how probably overconfidence and narcissism evolved as traits because even though they create this state of internal delusion or deception, at the end of the day they are helpful for helping people come across as better than they actually are or fool others. Of course, if you follow somebody who isn't as good as they think they are, you will be in trouble as well. That's happened in politics when people vote for charismatic and narcissistic heads of state who are, nonetheless, incompetent, they will cause damage to their countries.

Something that really stuck with me in your book is the section about the charisma allure. I'm just summarizing here, but you say that humble leaders make the world a better place. However, in times of crisis people are more likely to choose the charismatic leaders. I couldn't help but think about the upcoming presidential election in the United States and how Democrats are arguably in a crisis right now. I wonder if you think that that could lead them to choosing the least qualified leader.

Yeah, that's interesting. Typically preferences swing a bit, you know? Obviously they swing ideologically. So as much as Obama fans can't understand [how] Obama [led] to Trump, in a way it makes perfect sense because Trump is to the right [as] Obama was to liberals. Everybody I think will admit that, in a way, Obama caused Trump — if you go extreme liberal for a while, people will come up and want exactly the opposite. I think there is something like that happens with personality as well. If you have too much charisma, too much impulsivity, too much risk, then you overcompensate in the other direction. This is why it's interesting that so many women now are putting themselves forward for elections, more than ever, because they know that there is an appetite for the opposite. It might be that the ideal is neither extreme, but we seek averages by going from one extreme to the other.

So I wanted to talk about a recent event. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, she's really receiving a lot of attention for her response to the Christchurch shooting. In my opinion she is showing the strength of those stereotypical feminine qualities such as empathy and leadership. I'm just curious what you think about that and about the response.

I couldn't agree more. I thought it was interesting because in a way you get something that is diametrically opposed to what we were seeing before, when you have right-wing presidents coming out and escalating, rather than the opposite. So if anything, the most interesting thing that she has done is to de escalate, which is instead of saying right, I'm going to use fear now to manipulate the voters and go in the direction that I want, because fear is a very powerful currency for politicians, she said no, this person, we won't name them. They win if we are afraid and if we fight back. So I think, you're right, compassion, empathy and altruism are the main traits she showed.

Is it possible to shift public perception of what it means to be a competent leader?

I think the public doesn't adjust that much because basically, ideology tends to the dominant currency here. What happens is that when somebody decides that they like a politician, they rarely adjust their judgment later on. Angela Merkel is a really interesting case study of not just probably the most successful and effective leader in politics, but also somebody who was initially disliked by the left, because she was seen as very Christian Democrat–right. Now it's the other way around because she changed, she showed empathy and altruism letting all the refugees in. She showed that she's not ideological and she's actually capable of making unbiased decisions for the country rather than for her party or her own values.

What do you think is to blame for the world having so many incompetent leaders, and prioritizing the wrong traits in a leader?

We shouldn't be blaming social media, Facebook or bad journalists for spinning news or distorting news or creating fake news. We should blame ourselves because we're not interested in an accurate understanding of reality. We're mostly interested in following our gut instincts. So I think that really is the main challenge that today leadership is a lot more abstract, hard to judge and complex than it used to. Certainly 50,000 years ago you follow the strong guy, usually a guy, then you have very very simple kind of indicators. Height, strength, courage, and that's it. On top of that, in our evolutionary past, we spent all the time with a small group of people so we knew each other very well. Today we're asked to decide, after a 30-minute debate, if we like somebody or not. We should decrease the emphasis on televisual, charismatic signs and try to be rational and evaluate whether what people's values and qualities are. I don't think we're moving into that direction. I think we're moving into the opposite direction.

That’s really interesting. Have you given any thought to what would be a more reasonable way to elect leaders rather than like democracy based on public perceptions?

The only kind of good example that I know of is in Germany, a lot of voters, before every Chancellor election or big party election, they go to a website, they answer 50 questions on what their attributes are. So what do they think about taxation, military spending, health, etc. Then the website says, okay, based on your views you have to vote for this person. It might be that they've never seen the person, but it's how they, you can see, even by Merkel, that charisma isn't an important feature there. You have this in Asian countries as well, but I think the world is becoming more like, even in third-world or developing nations, countries who are electing very very charismatic, manipulative populist dictators.

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic's new book is titled "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It)."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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All Salon Mental Health Narcissism Psychology Psychopathy Science & Health Tomas Chamorro-premuzic