December 1, 2021
WHY DO WE SELECT BAD LEADERS?

Dr Rozhan Othman

Senior Fellow

Why do we continue to select bad leaders? “We” here refers to both followers who elect bad leaders in the political process and top management who select incompetent individuals to fill in leadership positions in succession and promotion decisions. Chamorro-Premuzic (2013) did a study on the issue and concluded that there are three key reasons why incompetent people becomes leaders.

Leadership Café Discourse 1:

WHY DO WE SELECT BAD LEADERS?

It is probably fair to say that leading is the second or third oldest profession in the world. Leadership is an issue that has been discussed by scholars and thinkers for thousands of years. We continue to show considerable interest in understanding leadership. This is partly because of the importance of leadership in our life and partly because we continue to see many bad leaders in key positions.

Business failures, endemic corruption, oppression and conflict are all the outcome of leadership failures. We continue to see bad leaders who are incompetent being elevated into leadership positions. In business, bad leaders are more easily identified because it is often associated with poor business performance. But in politics and the public sector performance is less salient and bad leaders are often not held accountable. And some of these leaders tend to remain in their positions for a long time.

Why do we continue to select bad leaders? “We” here refers to both followers who elect bad leaders in the political process and top management who select incompetent individuals to fill in leadership positions in succession and promotion decisions. Chamorro-Premuzic (2013) did a study on the issue and concluded that there are three key reasons why incompetent people becomes leaders. These are:

1. Our tendency to confuse between confidence and competence.

2. The appeal of charismatic individuals.

3. The allure of narcissistic individuals.

Put 10 strangers in a room and ask them to elect a leader after 15 min. It is most likely that the person who projects confidence will be elected as the leader. And quite often, confidence is gauged based on the person’s verbal communication skill. Yet, Chamorro-Premuzic found that highly confident individuals are more likely to overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulty of a task. Often, too much confidence can lead to hubris which causes a leader to make risky decisions and reject counsel from others. They begin to believe they can do no wrong.

In addition, we are often attracted to people who are charming and display charisma. They often make us feel good and impress us with their articulateness. Yet, charisma is not synonymous with leadership competence. In fact, the literature on charismatic leaders has expressed concerns that some charismatic individuals can be manipulative.

Narcissism can also create the impression of leadership ability. Everyone has some level of narcissism. We like to be praised and we also like to tell others of our accomplishments. Highly narcissistic individuals like to be at the centre of attention, seek personal glory and possess a big ego. Quite often, narcissistic individuals are ambitious and can be visionary. They articulate visions that tap into our fears and insecurities to win over support. Because of this, they are perceived as leadership material. Yet highly narcissistic individuals are mainly concerned with their personal glory and are unempathetic towards the problems of others and are not concerned with actually creating beneficial outcomes. Narcissism is not the same as leadership competence.

Besides these 3 issues highlighted by Chamorro-Premuzic, senior leaders can also be a part of the problem. They promote people who do not have leadership competencies into leadership positions. Sometimes this happens because senior leaders assume that a subordinate who has been a good follower will also become a good leader. In other situations, senior leaders prefer to work with people who they are comfortable with. As a result, they promote people who do not ask difficult questions, who are conformists and think almost exactly like them into leadership positions.

There are also cases where senior leaders promote individuals who appear to be outstanding to them. These individuals can be good presenters, they deliver results and in some cases they are sycophantic. Yet, these individuals can be incompetent, abusive team leaders and free ride on the work of others to make themselves look good. Senior leaders attribute success to these individuals because the actual happenings in the team is not visible to them.  

The Peter Principle highlights the problem in making promotion decisions. It is argued that people can be promoted into incompetence. This happens when a person who is good in her current position is promoted to a higher position. This new position typically requires higher level leadership competencies. As a result, this individual fails because the current position does not prepare her for this new position. We see this when good teacher is promoted to become a principal, a surgeon is promoted to become a hospital director and a professor is promoted to become a dean. Their prior successes were not indicative of their leadership competencies.

Many of us may have seen incompetent individuals promoted into leadership positions. We may have also misjudged (overestimate and possibly underestimate) the leadership competencies of our peers or subordinates. How can we overcome these problems? How do we heighten the awareness of this problem among senior leaders? Can HR do something to improve the situation? What are your thoughts on this issue?

References:

1. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013). “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” Harvard Business Review, August 22.

2. Lewis, L. (2020). “The Psychology of Leadership: How Confidence Can Be Deceiving” . https://www.indeed.com/.../lessons-from-the-psychology-of.... Aug 12..

3. Peter, Laurence J., and Raymond Hull. [1969] 1970. The Peter Principle. Pan Books.

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