It’s no secret that many people have a less than flattering opinion of their leaders. We perceive our business leaders as incompetent, our politicians as incapable.
Another phenomenon that we can observe is the disparity between men and women in holding this type of role. Although women represent, on average, 44% of the workforce, as we go up the hierarchical scale, we find less and less equality, up to 6% of women who hold the role of CEO.
What if these two phenomena are connected? Could having more female leaders improve the quality of leadership? To answer this question it is necessary to analyze the causes of both phenomena.
We need to understand why the leaders we choose are increasingly becoming completely unsuitable for the role assigned, and why so few women come to fill those roles. Our goal should not only be to increase the percentage of female leaders, but to increase the quality of our leaders.
It is time to find a solution to these two problems, a solution that requires a new way of looking at things.
Often those who appear self-confident seem competent
We think of the leader, and immediately we think of successful men, charismatic men, with strong characters. We think of men who have defeated adversity thanks to their tenacity, of men who believe in themselves to the point of being able to make their “vision” come true. We think, in short, of men who have strong self- confidence .
What doesn’t immediately come to mind is competence . There is a big difference between safety and competence: safety is what we believe we are good at, competence is our actual ability to do something. A very confident person can certainly convey the idea of being extremely competent, but it does not always mean that he is.
Decades of scientific studies show us that, when it comes to self-assessing our skills and competences in a given area, we always consider ourselves clearly superior to our actual abilities. The awareness of one’s abilities increases the more we become competent, but the difference in perception between who is truly competent and who is inept is minimal.
Furthermore, highly competent individuals often develop a sense of self-criticism that is completely absent from incompetent people.
Without self-criticism, we manage to convince ourselves that we are much better than we actually are. Once our self-image is so positive, our self-esteem allows us to convey the same impression to others.
How the wrong people manage to reach the heights
Self-confidence is definitely something that arises within each of us. But when we start to project security, those around us start to perceive us as safe people, and this only reinforces our security in ourselves. And this is precisely the most harmful aspect, because it is what makes us appear competent, when in reality we are not.
Several studies show that internal security doesn’t change much between men and women. What changes is the perception that others have of our security. The way we evaluate men and women is profoundly different.
The same characteristics, observed in a man or a woman, lead us to form clearly different impressions: we think of a woman who shows herself thoughtful and attentive to others, and we think of a man who exhibits the same characteristics.
We think of a man who decides to go against the current, breaking the rules to pursue his vision. Now let’s think of a woman who takes the same approach.
The two psychological traits of a bad leader
Some of the leaders most acclaimed by the media (think for example of Steve Jobs) have managed to reconcile very difficult characters with sensational success. But it is not because of their character that they have achieved success. The thing that makes them special is that they managed to succeed despite these toxic traits.
The two psychological traits that can most often be found in leaders are narcissism and psychopathy. Both these traits are fascinating, because they allow an individual to project an air of security, to give those around him the impression of being competent and qualified. In the long run, however, these individuals tend to have a harmful effect not only on those who work closely with them, but on the entire organization.
Several studies show us that both narcissism and psychopathy are present more in men than in women. This could, at least in part, explain why more men (especially if incompetent) manage to make their way towards leadership positions.
There are several approaches aimed at identifying these characteristics, and companies should try to implement them in their selection and promotion processes, in order to prevent unsuitable people from finding themselves in roles where their personalities risk creating damage.
Choosing more women leaders is the way forward
If it is true that men more often exhibit the characteristics that lead a person to be a bad leader, could the solution be to promote more women? To answer, we must try to evaluate how men and women are different.
Let’s leave behind the stereotypes of the strong and determined man and the caring and loving woman. One of the indicators that we have used for years to measure a person’s intelligence is the Intellectual Quotient (IQ). Several studies show us that there is no substantial difference between men and women when it comes to capacity.
The difference is noticeable in other areas, such as emotional and social skills, where women usually outnumber men. Let’s talk about Emotional Quotient (EQ) to summarize the social and intrapersonal skills that are fundamental for a leader: communication, empathy, involvement.
The characteristics of a good leader
When an individual achieves an extraordinary result in their field, we often talk about talent. Talent is a very difficult feature to spot because it only manifests itself when a goal is achieved. Until then it is only potential.
Companies should seek to identify individuals with strong potential, rather than just individuals who already demonstrate their talent. The biggest obstacle is that often those involved in selection live in an environment completely detached from the one in which the leader will then go to work. The world of HR often focuses on single factors, and easily falls victim to the fashions of the moment.
So what are the characteristics of a good leader?
- Intellectual capital : experience, competence and common sense. These features allow a leader to do their job better, and to have greater credibility and support from those they work with.
- Social capital: the network of people and resources that a leader has available. A leader with a good network of contacts and relationships will be able to have a greater impact.
- Psychological capital: how a leader will use his own characteristics. Psychological capital is made up of clear aspects (ability to learn, ambition, extroversion), dark aspects (narcissism and psychopathy), and internal aspects (moral values).
These characteristics are not enough to ensure that a person will be a good leader. In fact, another fundamental aspect to consider is the environment in which a leader operates.
Become a better leader
A bad leader doesn’t change. A person who is unable to lead a team does not suddenly become a point of reference. But an excellent leader can, over time, lose those qualities that have made him great for years.
This does not mean that everything is lost, there are many ways in which a leader can not only improve, but also train and refine those characteristics that make him better than others. Just look around to find hundreds of seminars, books, “methods” that promise to turn people into successful leaders.
Even if an organization is able to select people with high leadership potential, it will have to find ways to develop this potential. Training a leader can have a big impact on the business reality, because the positive effects can be reflected on all those who the leader manages. Not all leadership development interventions, however, seem to obtain the promised results, indeed, they are often closely related to a loss of confidence in the leaders by subordinates.
To create an effective development path, the leader must first be willing to participate, questioning what might be his toxic traits, and implement new positive habits.
Here are six points to keep in mind:
1. Habits are hard to die. Leadership is not innate, but derives from a set of predisposition and training experiences. Changing one’s habits, especially when they have been well rooted for years, requires a lot of effort.
2. Effective coaching can yield excellent results. There are no mathematical formulas for coaching, the right balance must be found between the development of skills and the elimination of toxic habits. One of the areas of greatest interest is the development of the emotional quotient, often also called soft skills or interpersonal skills.
3. Attention to strengths. Often there is a tendency to focus too much on developing existing strengths, without giving importance to the negative aspects to be changed. Although this approach appears to yield more results, its long-term effect is negative.
4. Self-awareness is fundamental. For a leader, knowing their strengths and weaknesses is essential. We are not generally predisposed to seek feedback, but it is essential to create a system that allows the people we work with to provide it.
5. It is not easy to go against our nature. Most of the decisions we make are predictable. Almost every trait that characterizes us is the result of habits that have lasted for years, and it is very difficult to change them. We are willing to amplify our strengths, but we struggle to change bad habits.
6. The potential without coachability is useless. By coachability we mean opening the person to receive coaching, feedback and to change their habits.
A bad leader will not suddenly become competent, empathetic, effective. He will continue to leverage the mechanisms that brought him to his current place. A leader with potential, on the other hand, can become a great leader, following a development path created especially for him, which enhances his strength, but which reduces his defects, replacing them with positive behaviors.
We must learn not to trust our instincts
Despite everything we’ve discussed so far, organizations still seem to select the wrong people. How is it possible? The selection processes tend to favor male candidates, enhancing the same characteristics which often prove problematic, while penalizing women who exhibit the same characteristics.
Women are often advised to “be more like male leaders” by exhibiting those traits that allow incompetent men to become leaders. At the same time as the woman begins to exhibit these traits, she is criticized and discarded, since the same traits, exhibited precisely by a woman, are immediately identified as negative .;
If we want to improve our ruling class, then, the solution seems to be to draw more from the female gender in the selection of our leaders.
We must not only break down the obstacles that prevent women from becoming leaders, but, perhaps even more urgently, we must create new barriers that prevent incompetent men from becoming leaders.