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Leadership: How to achieve competence in picking competent leaders

Interview with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, organizational psychologist, author and entrepreneur

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European Business: Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic, which of all the incompetent men in leadership positions around the globe raised your special interest this morning?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: There is so much competition right now and I do not want to name anyone specific. [laughs] I think the whole question has a rather timeless aspect. Nevertheless, in the current political climate, incompetent leadership is exposed because leadership is always tougher, and you need more talented leaders, when dealing with uncertainty or a full-blown crisis. That is one phenomenon that the book tries to highlight: the negative consequences of gravitating towards leaders who seem very certain of things when they should not be.

So, even people who love very confident or overconfident leaders are beginning to wonder whether they are in safe hands when the same leaders say one thing one day and then a very different thing two days later. And yet at the same time, we are not comfortable with people saying: Look, we must work out what the situation is because it is uncertain. Stylistically, I am always closer to Angela Merkel's approach to politics than Donald Trump's, because by being data driven and cautious it assumes a certain level of rationality.

In the current political climate, incompetent leadership is exposed because leadership is always tougher, and you need more talented leaders, when dealing with uncertainty or a full-blown crisis. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

European Business: Let us talk about your book. What is the key message you want to convey?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: This is a difficult question. But I think the main one is the idea that we pick leaders based on their outward display of confidence rather than their innate competence. And that explains why we end up with so many bad leaders and with so many male leaders. You can unwrap this statement and then more broadly talk about the disconnect between the traits that are seductive in a leader and those that are essential to being an effective leader. And the message is, if we want to improve things, we need to develop our own competence in picking competent leaders because it takes competence to both spot and stop incompetence.

European Business: You rely on science and data to support your statements. But honestly, I have the feeling that many people are more willing to ignore science rather than listen to what it has to say. Given that, how can science promote positive change at all?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: You are right to wonder and to question. And I think there is a clear paradox, the more information we have and we are exposed to, the easier it is to choose ignorance because it is perplexing, overwhelming and difficult for the average person to actually disentangle fact from fiction. What do we do? Our instant reaction is to follow our instincts and our intuition and that is what we apply in politics but also the corporate world. That explains why the majority of leaders who are in charge, if they are not just male, but also not very competent, have little interest in using a tool or a methodology.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
The majority of leaders who are in charge, if they are not just male, but also not very competent, have little interest in using a tool or a methodology. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

European Business: Recent studies show that only a minority of employees (35%) are interested in taking on a leadership role; among millennials the figure is just 13%. Should we not just be happy that there is someone who wants to take on the job of leader when there are so few alternative candidates?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: That is a great question, but I wonder if there is indeed a problem. First of all, if the percentage is 30 or 35%, that is more than enough. Imagine if 100% of people wanted to be a leader! Clearly, it's not possible.

But I think the most important point I would make, which is part the book too, is that there has never really been a strong correlation between the will to lead and being good at it. Here is where I differ from the Lean In approach by Sheryl Sandberg. If you're leaning in, you are less likely to be a good candidate for leadership roles because you're very focused on yourself, busy promoting or advertising. You are focused on your own accomplishments and you're not focused on that task so much. If we want leaders who are humble characters and really interested in the benefit of the organization, you're more likely to get that if you empower people who actually were just doing their job focused on the given task. A great manager basically taps them on the shoulder and says: Hey, have you ever thought of being a leader? Because I think you have the qualities that we need. And if the person says I’m not interested, then let us try to persuade them.

European Business: You are also an entrepreneur. Did you ever conduct an interview where the successful applicant turned out to be an incompetent man in leadership within your own organisation?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: Yes, it has happened. Not just once, but many times. In my own personal experience whenever it comes to identifying or selecting talent, I try very, very hard to practice what I preach. But I am still very much a work in progress. Especially as an expert you tend to assume that your intuition is already data driven. I might be the first believer in or the strongest advocate of psychometric assessments as a way to assess someone’s personality. But that doesn't stop me from making inferences about you during this call, because I am thinking about that all the time. And, you know, you end up seeing things. Probably I am right more often than most people, but I am still sometimes mistaken.

Interview: Markus Büssecker | Pictures: Fyfephoto.com

Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? published by Harvard Business Review Press and widely available.

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