Why are so many men (and often the wrong men) still in charge?

YOU know the expression all mouth and trousers? According to the Harvard Business Review, this term may now be applied with scientific accuracy to quite a few men.

Specifically, the ones in charge. If you are a woman — you may long have wondered just why exactly so many men are in charge, rather than the world being a bit more even handed. Especially when so many men in charge — politicians, financiers, business leaders — have had such an impact on the economy, the ecology, and the lives of ordinary people.

This is not some sexist rant, I promise. Sexist rants are old school and boring. But when Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, expert in psychological profiling and psychometric testing, wrote in the Harvard Business Review blog about his findings on why women are under represented in management, these findings turned out to be a bit worrying. It’s more than the glass ceiling, unfortunately. It’s the plausibility of human beings to allow shouty types to be in charge, irrespective of their competence. And guess what — shouty types tend to be overwhelming male. All mouth, all trousers.

Here are some figures to back it up. A quantitive review of gender differences in personality, published by University College London, involved over 23,000 participants from 26 cultures. This is quite a sizeable chunk of cross-border humanity, but the findings indicated women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble than men, and that men are more arrogant, risk-prone and manipulative, with far greater belief in their own abilities. Even when these beliefs are wildly wrong.

Dr Chamorro-Premuzic says within a leaderless group, the most dominant will generally be perceived as leader, irrespective of ability. “In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence,” he writes. “That is, because we — people in general — commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women.”

Arrogance and a desire for control, often smoothed over by surface charm, tend to fool men and women colleagues into thinking the over-confident candidate has superior abilities. And so we continuously mistake assertive confidence for leadership qualities, although the two are not related. It takes more than self belief to get the job done, but for reasons probably rooted in the mists of evolutionary biology, we allow narcissists and psychopaths to be in charge of us because it makes us feel safe. Or because we are easily duped. Or both.

According to investigative author Jon Ronson in his book The Psychopath Test, the top end of business and politics are littered with actual psychopaths, defined by the famous Hare Checklist as possessing traits which include “glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse or guilt, callous/lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle… impulsivity, irresponsibility… criminal versatility.” Think hedge fund managers, top level politicians, captains of industry.

As well as psychopaths, we also favour narcissists. Freud’s idea about narcissists is that we look up to them because we have replaced our own narcissistic tendencies (which are defined as being self centred, self absorbed, and tending to exaggerate one’s own abilities) with our love of the leader. Think of Vladimir Putin and his devoted followers, or the cult of Steve Jobs. “Another person’s narcissism”, said Freud, “has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own... as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind.”

But the thing is that the best leaders are not shouty show-offs. It’s one thing getting the top job, but quite another actually getting the job done, and this is where so many narcissists and psychopaths fail. “What it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well,” writes Dr Chamorro-Premuzic. “As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people.”

The best leaders tend to be humble, he says, with high emotional intelligence, and a high empathy quota. They work for the common good rather than personal glory, and inspire their teams to be the best they can be, rather than lording it over them or intimidating them. Who could these mythical creatures be? Could they be — whisper it — women?

Well, yes, obviously. But because women tend not to shove their way into the board room, we make the men leaders instead. Yet the studies Dr Chamorro-Premuzic cites show overwhelmingly that it is transformational leadership — the type that elicits pride and respect in others — which is most likely to be found in female leaders. Good leaders of either sex are rare anyway, he says, but even rarer because we continue to appoint the wrong man. Repeatedly. Duh.

* To read Dr Chamorro-Premuzic’s blog, see: blogs.hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men/


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