Google “my boss is” and you’ll see the following auto-complete options: “abusive,” “crazy,” “mean,” “incompetent,” and “lazy.” Opinion surveys produce similar results. According to Gallup, a global polling firm that periodically collects attitudinal data from employees all over the world, 75 percent of people quit their jobs because of their direct line manager. Results like these reveal bad leadership as the number one cause of voluntary turnover worldwide. Meanwhile, 65 percent of Americans say they would rather change their boss than get a pay raise. This shortsighted response fails to recognize that the next boss might not be any better, but worse.
What to make of the obvious fact that most leaders, inept or otherwise, are male? Since women make up around 50 percent of the adult population and, throughout much of the industrialized world, outnumber and outperform men in college, we might expect at least equal representation of women and men in leadership positions. And yet, reality disagrees. In most parts of the world, the notion of leadership is so masculine that most people would struggle to name one famous female business leader. For example, in a recent survey, a thousand Americans were asked to name a famous female business leader in tech. Some 92 percent of respondents had no answer, and a quarter of the remaining 8 percent named “Siri” or “Alexa.” When I mentioned to a client that I was writing a book on women and leadership, her cynical response was, “You mean you are writing two books?” Her response typifies the weak association between women and leadership, and not just in people’s minds.
Even among the S&P 500 companies (which are much more committed to gender equality than are smaller, privately held businesses), we are very far from seeing a balanced gender ratio. By 2017, the proportion of women in positions in these firms decreased as the power of the position increased:
44 percent of the workforce
36 percent of first-line and midlevel managers
25 percent of senior leaders and executives
20 percent of board members
6 percent of CEOs
What if these two observations — that most leaders are bad and that most leaders are male — are causally linked? In other words, would the prevalence of bad leadership decrease if fewer men, and more women, were in charge?
I first asked this question in 2013, in a brief Harvard Business Review essay whose title summarized the issue: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” I argued that the underrepresentation of women in leadership was not due to their lack of ability or motivation, but to our inability to detect incompetence in men. When men are considered for leadership positions, the same traits that predict their downfall are commonly mistaken — even celebrated — as a sign of leadership potential or talent. Consequently, men’s character flaws help them emerge as leaders because they are disguised as attractive leadership qualities. As my new book on the subject shows, traits like overconfidence and self-absorption should be seen as red flags. But instead, they prompt us to say, “Ah, there’s a charismatic fellow! He’s probably leadership material.” The result in both business and politics is a surplus of incompetent men in charge, and this surplus reduces opportunities for competent people — women and men — while keeping the standards of leadership depressingly low.
If you have ever worked in an office, then you have probably experienced a particular form of bad management displayed by bosses who seem unaware of their limitations and are clearly and unjustifiably pleased with themselves. They are overconfident, abrasive, and very much in awe of themselves, particularly in light of their actual talents. They are their own biggest fans by some distance.
For the majority of employees around the world, their everyday work reality breeds anxiety rather than inspiration, and more distrust than trust.
Yet these flaws seldom hamper their career prospects. Au contraire. And because these bosses are more likely to be men than women, much of the popular advice for female potential leaders prescribes stereotypically masculine behaviors such as “believe in yourself”; “don’t worry about what others think of you”; and, my favorite, “just be yourself,” as if an alternative were even possible. (As a humorous version of the be-yourself advice notes, “Be yourself; everybody else is already taken.”)
A clear sign of socioeconomic progress is the business world’s attempts to place more women at the top of companies. And few large Western organizations lack diversity programs, most of which include an explicit focus on gender. The programs, however, primarily aim to help women emulate men, with the underlying assumptions that women deserve the same or can also do it. But how useful and logical is this goal when most leaders are in fact quite harmful to their organizations? Instead of treating leadership like some kind of glamorous career destination or personal reward for reaching the top, we should remember that leadership is a resource for the organization — it is good only when employees benefit from it, by boosting their motivation and performance. Elevating the standards of leadership — not simply having more women in charge — should be the top priority.
For the majority of employees around the world, the experience of leadership is undeniably far from positive. Their everyday work reality breeds anxiety rather than inspiration, burnout rather than empowerment, and more distrust than trust. And while the public may admire and celebrate the people who rise to the top, things are usually different for the employees who have to work for them.
The data bears out this pervasive discontent. In a 2011 study of more than 14,000 human resource professionals and other managers, the respondents rated barely 26 percent of their current leaders positively and only 18 percent of future leaders as promising. Similarly, senior executives have little faith in the potential of those they regard as successors. A recent global poll exploring how boards evaluate their talent management programs — the very systems designed to identify, develop, and retain leaders — indicated that fewer than 20 percent of boards are confident that their organizations have a grip on their leadership problems. The situation is hardly better for governments and heads of state. Some 60 percent of people in the world believe that their country is on the wrong track, courtesy of their leaders.
Women’s paths to leadership are undoubtedly dotted with many barriers, including a very thick glass ceiling. But the more I have studied leaders and leadership, the more I believe that the much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men.
People tend to equate leadership with the very behaviors — overconfidence, for example — that often signal bad leadership. What’s more, these behaviors are more common in the average man than in the average woman. The result is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence. We need to replace our flawed leader-evaluation criteria with more relevant, effective criteria: some that predict actual performance rather than individual career success. Things will get better, not just for women but also for everyone else, when we start picking better leaders.