Confidence disguised as Competence

Overconfident decisions that lead to bad results are nothing new, as evidenced by countless examples from Napoleon’s march on Moscow, John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion to the Vietnam War. Overconfident leaders routinely put themselves forward for tasks which they’re not equipped for and their lack of competence seriously handicaps the performance and morale of their teams.

Overconfident leaders are more prone to reckless decisions because of their immunity to negative feedback. Despite the brutally honest cultures where ‘radical transparency’ is the norm – so many companies believe telling the truth isn’t just politically unwise also career suicide. There’s even a recent trend from VMWare, Wayfair and BCG to shift towards purely positive feedback in an attempt to eliminate all negative comments. To make matters worse, the more successful and powerful the incompetent leaders become, the more people will suck up to them, even when people think poorly of them. 

Despite the common perception that confidence is a highly desirable trait, it’s only true when accompanied by actual competence. Both Dizzy Dean and Mohammed Ali have said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” Think of anyone you disliked because he or she appeared arrogant. Chances are the problem wasn’t a lack of confidence but rather too much of it relative to the person’s competency.

 

Why bad guys win

Several studies suggest narcissists disproportionately occupy the leadership ranks. Narcissists have or are perceived to have some positive qualities like higher levels of creativity. But in reality, narcissistic people are no more creative than others are… they’re just better at selling themselves to others. Anyone who ever opened a newspaper will know how easy it is to become drawn to narcissistic leaders.

Bad guys are hard to detect, but you can evaluate one’s psychopathy and narcissism based on the effects on his or her subordinates. You can simply ask the subordinates to rate their boss on critical indicators of psychopathy. In one study, for example, employees were asked to rate their bosses on personality aspects like “can make a joke out of anyone”, “enjoys being disruptive” and “is not sincere”. On the other hand, scientists have developed concise measures of psychopathy such as the Short Dark Triad assessment. With just fifteen self-report statements, you can get a pretty good sense of an individual’s psychopathy level.

 

The charisma myth

If there’s one important  leadership lesson taught by history, it is that in the hands of immoral and selfish leaders, charisma is a lethal deception tool to enlist followers’ support for destructive causes. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini were all charismatic, and such leaders would have caused far less damage if they were otherwise. A less charismatic Osama bin Laden would have had a harder time persuading people to crash a plane into the twin towers and Jonestown would have been less likely to happen had Jim Jones been less charismatic.

Paying too much attention to charisma can lead us to ignore other equally important attributes such as competence, integrity and self-awareness.  Charisma often ends up being a convenient proxy for leadership, but it is a poor proxy and we ignore the true, objective indicators of leadership potential and performance at our peril. When we judge leaders purely on their stage presence, TV appearance and Twitter feeds, charisma will rule and overshadow any logical arguments.

 

The female advantage

As you might expect, people with higher EQs are generally more effective in leadership roles. Despite the small gender differences for EQ, women do tend to have higher EQs than men do. And all other things being equal, higher-EQ individuals deserve to be promoted, whether they’re male or female.

As with emotional intelligence differences between men and women, women’s higher self-awareness and greater likelihood of seeing themselves in a worse light than others see them usually helps them fix or get over. Women generally report higher levels of depression, anxiety and can worry overly about what others think of them. Yes, it’s a challenge for many female leaders to learn to cope with greater scrutiny and judgment they face. But the upshot of living under a microscope is that you see yourself as others see you. Maybe it’s the ultimate reason that helps women become better leaders.

 

What good leaders look like

To judge a leader’s potential, we need to objectively look at their teams’ performance. Objective assessment, however, can be confounded by a shortage of comparative cases, the existence of confounding factors, or simply insufficient data. Regardless, organizations must still try to see the reality. Failing that, we can look at a team’s morale as a good proxy because it’s both a cause and consequence of higher team performance and their leader’s behaviors. Moreover, subordinates’ goal isn’t to help their leaders attain greater personal success. They want to pursue a common goal which the leader facilitates. Clearly, the leadership attributes that work toward this common goal are not confidence or charisma, but competence and integrity.

 

It’s much easier to predict leadership performance than improving it

Like any other personality trait, leadership is part nature and part nurture. Leadership is far less heritable than height or weight, still around 30 percent of leadership potential is determined by genetic factors. While this lower percentage is attributed to nature, we still don’t understand or control the remaining 70 percent, that is nurture. 

When AT&T pioneered leadership assessment and development centers in the 1970s, putting hundreds of leaders through highly structured and standardized programs, the company assessed the relative impact of training and talent on subsequent leadership performance. The main finding? Leadership effectiveness was highly predictable. The rank order of leaders’ performance remained remarkably unchanged before and after the training. Training wasn’t irrelevant but did little to alter the difference.

In the same vein, a recent meta-analysis investigated which aspects of a person’s job performance could be attributed to deliberate practice and training. The researchers looked at various fields and professions and found that training had the greatest effect in areas where the rules are clear, performance can be measured objectively and improvisation is minimal. Nevertheless, in all fields, training had only a minor effect on job performance: 26 percent for games, 21 percent for music, 18 percent for sports, 4 percent for education and just 1 percent for average profession.

In comparison, simply evaluating where leaders stand on the general dimensions of the ‘big five’ personality factors accounted for around 50 percent of the variability in leadership emergence and effectiveness (half of your success as a leader is dictated by your personality).

 

To climb a tree, don’t train a fish… find a squirrel

Bad leaders are unlikely to turn into inspirational, high-performing leaders. They can change but most won’t improve beyond what you’ve seen them do in the past. Human inertia makes professional development interventions such as executive coaching indispensable, though a much more effective strategy would be to focus more time, effort and resources on promoting right people into leadership roles.

As in any other area of life and business, prevention is a much better option than cure. There’s no need to choose between one and the other, both should be pursued. But remember, leaders are much more likely to improve when they have been correctly selected.


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Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.