Skip to main content

Why do we promote — and elect — incompetent leaders?

caption: Eula Scott Bynoe, co-host of Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace,  doing her best impression of Michael Scott from "The Office."
Enlarge Icon
Eula Scott Bynoe, co-host of Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace, doing her best impression of Michael Scott from "The Office."
KUOW Photo/Juan Pablo Chiquiza

Many of us have watched “The Office” and laughed/cringed at the antics of Michael Scott, a horrible boss who believes — wholeheartedly, even sometimes charmingly — that he is the world’s best boss.

The jokes are funny because they hit close to home, reminding us of bosses we’ve had who were incompetent or inappropriate or willing to throw anyone else under the bus in order to succeed.

But we have to wonder: how do these terrible bosses get hired, and why do they continue to succeed?

This week’s guest, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, said that it can be cathartic to observe all of these bad fictional bosses.

But the reality, he said, is that many people have been traumatized by their experiences with bad bosses. And ultimately, our attraction to charismatic, incompetent leaders can be the downfall of companies, but it can also lead to the decline of whole countries.

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University and the author of “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”

He said that when people choose leaders to run countries or companies, “they are seduced by leaders who are confident rather than competent, charismatic rather than honest, and narcissistic rather than humble.”

According to Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, the qualities of confidence, charisma, and narcissism “are not just irrelevant, but often negatively correlated with leadership effectiveness.”

A large part of the problem is that our implicit biases get in the way, shaping our perceptions of what a leader should look or act like.

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic said that “the very things that we should ignore when we are evaluating leadership potential are the very things that we love to pay attention to — for example whether someone is male or female, attractive or unattractive, part of our tribe or our group, rich or poor. Unless you remove this information from people’s decision-making criteria, it is always going to be a problem.”

We wondered why the title of Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic’s book focuses on men.

“Most leaders are a) men and b) not very good," he said.

"And by this I’m not saying that there aren’t men who could be good leaders, but that most men who display the qualities that we need in a leader today — things like EQ, altruism, self-awareness, and humility — are overlooked precisely because they display these more traditionally feminine features of leadership.”

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic said the book was born as an alternative to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” because “the solution to our problems is not asking women to emulate men, but fixing ourselves and not falling for people — usually men — who ‘lean in’ when they actually don’t have the talents to back it up.”

He referenced Argentina, his country of origin, as an example of a country whose standing in the world has continued to decline because “we keep on choosing these despotic, charismatic, charming, incompetent people to run the country.”

So how do we start to fix these broken systems and hire people who will actually work towards the success of their teams?

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic said that we need to rely on scientifically verified psychometric tests and detailed records of past performances, including ratings given to a leader by previous team members.

Why you can trust KUOW