Home Community Insights How to Spot An Incompetent Leader — Thomas C. Premuzic

How to Spot An Incompetent Leader — Thomas C. Premuzic

How to Spot An Incompetent Leader — Thomas C. Premuzic

Consider the economic impact of avoiding a toxic worker is two times higher than that of hiring a star performer — Thomas C. Premuzic

Leadership is often thought of as the pillar of entrepreneurship. It is believed that the success of a business enterprise depends on the quality of its leadership. Therefore, it is often said that any business led by an incompetent person is liable to a premature death. However this is usually preceded by common symptoms such as toxic culture, underperformance, leakages and shrinkages etc.

In his article, How to spot an incompetent leader, published in Harvard Business Review, Thomas Chamorro Premuzic identified the characteristics and impacts of incompetent leadership. His argument stems from his declarative statement that one who wishes to understand the early failure signals of a business must seek it in the leadership strength of the business. According to him:

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“If you want to understand why some companies have a toxic culture, underperform relative to their potential and eventually collapse, look no further than the quality of their leadership teams.”

Premuzic defined the essence of incompetent leadership as a function of the detrimental effects a leader has on their surbodinates or followers, or organization. According to him, incompetent leaders result in anxious, alienated worriers who practice counterproductive work behaviour and spread toxicity throughout the firm, whereas competent leaders often inspire great confidence, engagement and high performance and productivity.

“Incompetent leaders are the main reason for low level of employee engagement and prevalent high level of passive job seeking and self-employment” Premuzic said. He added ”consider that the economic impact of avoiding a toxic worker is two times higher than that of hiring a star performer”.

Incompetent leadership is often a corollary to psychological and social disorder. On the personal psychological level, Premuzic stressed a tendency of the individual to overestimate the depth of their knowledge and capacity, a variation between confidence and competence which often result in crisis and arrogance in the actual test of responsibility.
According to him, arrogance is very central to the anatomy of incompetent leadership.C

“Confidence is beneficial only when in sync with your competence” Premuzic noted. There is greater tendency among people to overestimate their capacity even more than underestimate it. However, this is more entrenched in incompetent leaders. He further stressed, a great deal of researches have shown that people who are really bad at something rate their skill as highly as people who are really good at something. “This is mainly due to lack of self-awareness” he said. What this means is that we cannot realistically rely on those in power to measure their own capabilities.

There is also a gender variation to this as men generally tend to be more overconfident (and arrogant) than women. “This is partly for biological reasons — gender differences in impulsivity, dominance, and aggressiveness appear in all cultures and from a very early age — but also for cultural reasons” Premuzic noted. In some cultures, the tendency to consider men as breadwinner and women as caregiver of the family often inform the  recruitment of more men than women into leadership position. The attempt to correct this belief through gender-equality actions equally gives rise to biases or a tendency to overlook competence in women.

Premuzic argues, whether a culture is good or bad, it is the product of the values and behaviours of our leaders. The best way to create a positive one is to stop unethical people from rising to power. He therefore charges those responsible for recruiting and examining leadership candidates to improve their ability to distinguish between confidence and competence. He said:

“Overconfidence is the natural result of privilege. If the future of leadership were more meritocratic, and managers select leaders on the basis of their talents and potentials rather than Machiavellian, self-promotion, reckless risk-taking or narcissistic delusion, we would not just end up with more women leaders but also with better men leaders”

It is said, despite available scientifically valid assessment tools to predict and avoid managerial and leadership incompetence, most employers take the traditional way with certain biases in mind in their selection of leaders. But interestingly, spotting an incompetent leader could stem from simply asking the leader if they are incompetent or narcissistic. This simple approach is often effective because “people with these tendencies, including narcissistic individuals, are typically uninterested in portraying themselves in humble ways” the writer said.

“When you are able to put thousands of leaders through the same self-report questionnaires, and you link their responses to their leadership style, performance, and effectiveness, you can identify the key patterns of self-presentation that characterize good and bad leaders”.

According to Premuzic, the problem is not that we lack the means to spot incompetence, but that we more often choose to be seduced by it. “This means we have only ourselves to blame for our self-destructive leadership choices” he said. “Instead of promoting people on the basis of their charisma, overconfidence, and narcissism, we must put in charge people with actual competence, humility, and integrity. The issue is not that these traits are difficult to measure, but that we appear to not want them as much as we say” he concluded.

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