Leadership, narcissism and what we really want

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests why we end up with incompetent leaders making a point about a bias towards men in the process:

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

In the comments, the men vs women aspect generates a lot of heat, including some fairly unabashed sexism. I’m more interested in the points he makes about our desire for “leadership” generally.  For instance, this:

Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

In fact, most leaders — whether in politics or business — fail. That has always been the case: the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.

I think our culture over-values and idealises leadership. It becomes a way of avoiding dealing with mess and vulnerability by hoping for magic. When people start talking about the need for leadership in a conversation, I want to know what specifically it is they want. Asking for “leadership” as an abstraction easily comes over as passive-aggressive.

I think this comes back to the human challenge to 1) know what we want and 2) be willing to make that desire clear to others without too much obfuscation and manipulation. When people vehemently demand leadership I suspect they either 1) don’t know what they want (and basically need someone else to tell them) or 2) do know what they want, but can’t bear the possibility they will be denied. In the worst cases, the call for leadership is really a demand for obedience, dressed up in fancy clothes.

Much the same applies to other abstractions like “innovation” or “action”.

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