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Why do people keep selecting bad leaders?

Let me tell you about a certain country.

A century ago, this country was regarded as one of the most promising of the future. It was richly endowed with a very diverse trove of natural resources, and had a GDP per capita higher than that of France or Germany.

It attracted immigrants from far and wide, and created a thriving economy based initially on agribusiness and ranching. It was at one time the world’s leading exporter of corn, flax and meat. Later on it became a manufacturing powerhouse, becoming largely self-sufficient in steel and fuel.

The country is highly educated, with a nearly universal literacy rate. Its oldest university is nearly 400 years old.

This is the very country that became one of the world’s basket cases, perpetually in some form of turmoil or other. It has suffered from coups and military dictatorships; veered sharply between neoliberal and redistributive economic models; and endured massive inflations, debt defaults and currency devaluations.

The country in question is Argentina. What happened to this nation? In the words of one of its sons: bad leaders. One bad one after another. This is recounted at the beginning of a new book, Why Do So Many incompetent Men Become Leaders? The book is written by one of Argentina’s own, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. The country’s downward spiral propelled the author to leave the land of his childhood and pursue a career in organisational psychology. He is now an international authority on talent management and leadership development.

His experience of his troubled land pushed him into asking these searching questions: ‘How can smart and educated people make self-destructive leadership choices, political term after term, without learning the lessons from previous failures? How can rational people who have their own interests at heart fall for charismatic con artists who promise them the impossible while pursuing harmful agendas and corrupt selfish interests?’

I think we are at a time in human history when a lot more of us, not just Argentinians, need answers to those questions. Those scenarios are painfully familiar to a whole bunch of folks.

Most leaders, not just national ones, are painfully inept. And we cannot avoid the observation that most leaders, to date, are men. Chamorro-Premuzic observes that most of us suffer from an ingrained inability to detect incompetence in men. When we select male leaders, we are given many signs that the story will not end well. The red flags are waved in our faces: narcissism, hubris, self-absorption. But we mistake these to be attractive leadership qualities. We think the leader is displaying ‘charisma’ and ‘confidence.’ We think those are good things in leadership. We mistake swagger for substance.

We know it doesn’t work. After all this serial selection of overconfident males, what is our experience? Studies repeatedly show how dissatisfied we all are with our leaders; yet we repeat our mistakes. The professor points out that it is not easy to unlearn our bad ideas about leadership: ‘A century of science has provided an enormous amount of evidence about what good and bad leadership looks like, but this does not erase the archetype of leadership in our minds.’ We remain prone to being fooled, again and again.

If we look at the evidence, three types of qualities should be of interest to us in leadership. The author calls these intellectual, social and psychological capital. Team morale is boosted if we think our leaders have the intelligence for the job – but crucially, this intelligence must be not just technical, but emotional as well. Secondly, those who can make deeper connections and build better relationships around them will tend to do better at leadership. Finally, character matters a great deal. We should be paying more attention to good personality traits that often pass unseen; and recoiling from those who display narcissism and psychopathy.

Perhaps only the actual ruin of our nations and organisations will convince many of us that the chest-thumping loudmouth is not the desirable model of leadership. We need to look for unique combinations of brains and empathy when we choose our leaders, and look beyond the smooth-talking aggressors who have been our undoing.

Next time you are about to select your leader, ask yourself what you’re really looking at, and what you’re missing. The key question, always, is this: Is this person in it just for personal uplift, or there for all of us?

(Sunday Nation, 15 September)

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