In any area of life, there is often a gap between what science prescribes and what people believe — or at least would like to believe.
One of the realms in which this gap is particularly prominent is leadership. In particular, science tells us that we should select individuals for leadership roles when they are competent, which tends to translate into having more technical expertise, intelligence, people-skills, and integrity. However, whether leaders are chosen by voters (in political elections), recruiters, or organizations (in the business world), the parameters that determine our typical leadership choices are rather different: mostly, we pick people for leadership positions when they are confident, charismatic, politically astute (to the point of being manipulative), and self-focused (to the point of being narcissistic). Style matters more than substance and all-style-and-no-substance will generally trump no-style-and-all-substance. This is obviously unfortunate.
Science also tells us that data — rather than intuition — should be used to predict whether a leader will be effective in his or her role. Some of the well-established methods to capture predictive data include highly structured/standardized interviews, valid psychometric assessments, and work simulations. More recent advances in AI also enable us to leverage algorithmic scoring of video interviews, our digital footprint, and language use.
And yet most leaders are chosen based on how they perform on unstructured, poorly designed interviews, their social (aka political) networks, and precarious indicators of their past performance: usually, whether they have managed up rather than down, which explains why they were popular with their own bosses.
The dominant currency in leadership selection is our gut feeling.
To be sure, some people are very intuitive and have impressive observational powers to detect potential in others, including for leadership role. But for each of those individuals there are probably 99 others who feel as intuitive while having very limited intuition for this.
As I illustrated in my recent TED talk, all this explains why so many incompetent men end up becoming leaders, and why so many competent women don’t. Consider that large meta-analyses have shown that there are either no differences or differences favoring women on most of the key determinants of leadership effectiveness, defined not in terms of whether someone becomes a leader, but in terms of whether someone will lead effectively once they do. Effective leaders look a lot like Angela Merkel: They are smart, competent, unbiased, hard-working, altruistic, and under-stated. They don’t put their own selfish interests or agendas first, but prioritize what’s good for their followers. They are also not over-confident, unjustifiably pleased with themselves, or unaware of their limitations. They are not particularly charismatic, but understated…to the point of being quite boring. You can have such leaders in place if you avoid selecting based on hyper-masculine traits like aggression, greed, or risk-taking, and select instead on the basis of emotional intelligence, humility, integrity, and coachability. In contrast, the typical leader who emerges at the top of the political or corporate ranks looks like the reverse. [Enter the name of your favorite case study here.]
It is really not that complex: Much like we do in the world of professional team sports, when we evaluate how good a coach or manager is, a leader’s effectiveness is measured based by the performance of their teams, business units, or organizations. Effective leaders cause high levels of engagement, morale, productivity, performance, revenues, and profits — which enables their teams to outperform rivals. Incompetent leaders cause high levels of burnout, anxiety, turnover, stress, and fear. Sadly, the latter is much more common than the former.
Consider that most workers are not engaged, and that people tend to quit their job because of their direct manager. In fact, a large number of people decide to quit traditional employment altogether to work for themselves or become entrepreneurs, simply to avoid traumatic experiences with their managers. Just Google “My boss is…” in any region or language to get a sense of how people experience their leaders at work. If this surprises you, then you should consider yourself lucky. And as you know, the vast majority of these leaders are male. Yes, there are incompetent female leaders, but they are proportionately underrepresented compared to men. This is because our standards are higher when we evaluate women for leadership roles than men. As I illustrate in my latest book, even among Fortune 500 companies — which are much more committed to gender diversity than the average business is — female leaders have to demonstrate a higher level of experience and qualifications in order to be selected over male counterparts. Of course, the solution is not to lower our standards to allow less competent women to get to the top, but to raise our standards when we pick men. To be sure, from a fairness standpoint women do deserve the right to be as incompetent as men, but we would all be better off if we applied the same quality control criteria to our selection of male candidates as we do to females.
Importantly, it is time to accept the fact that our leader selection systems are generally not meritocratic. If the most competent candidates got the job — and we followed the lessons of science — then most people would have really positive experiences with leaders, and we would regard most of our leaders as inspirational, transformational, and talented. That is not the case. Admitting that the status quo is far from meritocratic will enable us to put in place more effective solutions, both for improving the quality of our leaders and for increasing the representation of women in leadership. For example, if the scientific evidence indicates that women have more potential for leadership, why would we need to engage in positive discrimination to help women become leaders? Note that while quotas may improve the representation of women in leadership, they do little to tackle the (flawed) stereotype that women are generally inferior leaders. In fact, they reinforce it: Why would women need help otherwise? In a logical — or at least a meritocratic — world, quotas would need to be put in place to help men rather than women become leaders. If we selected on actual talent or potential, women would over-index in leadership, and we would then need to find ways to help men get to the top.