The Art of Business Transformation
Why should you follow this approach?
I’ve been fortunate enough to see change happen – and not – from the inside of organizations. Whether you work for a marketing communications firm, a strategic consultancy or inside an organization, having the opportunity to create change is huge. You’re probably excited and maybe even a little nervous. I’m sure you have an idea of what you want to do and how to get there. You’re right! You’ve got a start on your plans already.
Here’s what you can add to the mix by following The Art of Business Transformation approach:
- Motivated and engaged partners in your plan – internal and external.
- Deep knowledge from key stakeholders and partners – the little things that will make a big difference.
- A process of creating change that is as inspiring and rewarding as the outcome.
- A sense that you are not doing this alone. A big tent for a big team.
I look forward to providing insights, ideas and real-life lessons learned to help you make the most of your opportunity.
What is the first step of business transformation?
Most people think the first step in business transformation is setting the plan. In truth, the first step is to be really honest about WHY you want to transform your business. Maybe you are being forced to change because of market circumstances; maybe there’s an opportunity to grow into a new market or leverage a new acquisition; maybe it’s time to make your operations more efficient, or maybe it’s just as simple as needing to refresh your brand image. These are the action steps, but what is the motivation?
If you’re like most people, your motivation for business transformation will be a mix of personal and professional issues:
- It’s fun to do business transformation
- It gives you new skills and a chance to grow your career
- It gives you visibility as a leader
- It fixes pains or issues in your market
- It helps the company grow, stay relevant, outpace the competition
There’s nothing wrong with having personal motivation. I’d say it’s necessary to understand that in order to keep yourself going for the long haul that is business transformation.
However, if you find that your motivation is PURELY personal or that (when you’re really honest), it’s on the dark side of motivation, maybe it’s time to take a new look at that motivation. Can you expand it to include others? Can you see a bigger picture on how to get there that will empower the larger team? I promise you, if you look for that bigger picture, you will surely find it.
The big secret about the art of business transformation is that people work with people. That personal motivation to bring your passion to the table, to engage to the fullest and bring others with you – THAT’s what makes the difference between a good idea and a great execution of that idea. And people can tell if you are motivated purely by your own gains or if you are looking at something larger.
See below for articles and proof points showing the connection between being a leader who focuses on others and financial performance.
Why should you listen to me?
As most of you know, I started my career as a temp at Chase Manhattan Bank where they had free sandwiches. (FREE SANDWICHES!) Having put myself through college doing research in the projects of East Los Angeles, I learned a lot about different walks of life, and being a temp showed me exactly how change happens – or doesn’t – from the bottom level up. Later, I went on to do a big consulting project with James River Paper, learning from the likes of Shoshana Zuboff, author and Harvard professor who cut her teeth in organizational psychology by working third shift in a manufacturing plant.
I’ve been lucky enough to be an integral part of many business transformation teams – from advertising and branding, to mergers and acquisitions, to distribution and logistics. One thing runs across all these assignments – the internal story that people tell themselves about what everyone is doing and why makes all the difference in the level of collaboration, effectiveness and, frankly, the fun of changing the world by transforming a business.
Why should you listen to me? Because I’ve been in the trenches and in the boardrooms; because I’ve been the person held responsible for motivating, inspiring and informing business transformation, even when I lacked the direct power to make anyone do anything. You learn a lot when the only way to get things done is by inspiring others. I did it. You can too!
Examples of business transformation
Brand transformation – Skippy. Have you seen the new Skippy commercials? Launched in July 2020 by Hormel Foods and BBDO, they have a song about going to your Skippy place.
Here we are in COVID-19. Guess what happens to peanut butter sales when kids are not bringing lunches to school every day? Exactly. Without ever mentioning Covid, Skippy is offering little moments of happiness when stressful times are happening at home.
Process transformation – Pharma companies. Guess who figured out how to work together and get product to market faster than humanly possible in the past? Pharma companies. Funny how a global pandemic inspired and motivated previous competitors to change the industry.
Product Transformation – Etsy, Fashion Designer. The week that Covid was announced, the CEO of Etsy, Josh Silverman sprang into action. While the company had previously been a marketplace of individuals, Silverman immediately got the idea to reach out to the Esty community and ask people to start making masks. They did. The result was massive sales, opportunities for people who had previously seen Etsy as a side gig and a lot more PPT available for all of us. Oh, and their stock price went up.
The same thing happened with designers including Christian Siriano, who reached out to Governor Andrew Cuomo about repurposing his sewing rooms to make masks and Pyer Moss who not only made a difference with his community but was also rewarded by making the coat and mask (made from leftover materials) for Vice President Kamala Harris at the Covid Memorial before inauguration day.
Distribution Transformation – Parnassus Books. Award-winning author Ann Patchett does NOT enjoy social media. She is not on Twitter or Facebook. She doesn’t even own a cell phone. What she does love, is books. So much so that she started a book store in Nashville with her sister. Guess what happened when Covid hit? Yikes. Everyone had to scramble. The company went from a tiny, in-person, high touch experience to an online store almost overnight. Ann herself was known to pack books until 4 in the morning and now does online videos (the others post) with her book recommendations. Not only has the company stayed afloat, but they have also kept all of their employees and even grown sales.
Check your motivation checklist
These are the common motivations for business transformation that I have seen. Each one represents the core motivation or what is driving the business transformation project. Mind you these may not always be the stated goals, but they are the underlying goals and motivation.
Why are you motivated to do business transformation?
Positive Side of the Motivation
Dark Side of the Motivation
|Make me look smart – I have some ideas about what the next opportunity might be, but I want to learn more. Help me get up to speed and become an expert on our markets and opportunities.||Prove I’m right – I have a very specific idea about the opportunities ahead of us. I want you to prove that I am right, regardless of what the research or internal interviews may say.|
|Keep me out of trouble – There are lots of places to have missteps in our business as we pursue opportunities, both internal and external. Help me be sure that we have thought through every possibility and planned for it.||Absolve me of wrongdoing – I work in a culture of blame. There are lots of places to get in trouble as we pursue new opportunities. I want you to cover me so that when there is a problem, I am not the person who is seen to be at fault.|
|Reduce the pain I find myself in – our business is under a ton of pressure (competition, changing markets, evolving business). I know that there are ways to navigate these issues. Help me find a way through this moment and unlock new opportunities.||Justify my poor management – Our company or business is in trouble. My team has contributed to these issues by ignoring customers, firing people, downsizing key roles, or not collaborating. I want to do business transformation to show that my poor decisions were actually justified.|
|Help me make this crazy dream come true – I have a vision of the future that my gut is telling me will happen. Help me find the way to transform my business and make this dream come true. Give me the insights and support to achieve what I know is possible.||Make me more important than anyone else – I want to be known as THE innovator, THE visionary, THE leader for my company. I want you to help me transform my business so that everyone can see this about me.|
What happens when you create a singular focus for your organization? What happens when you take that singular focus and turn that into a process? Massively positive results. Read case studies on how medicine was transformed – reducing complications, infections and death – with a checklist; how the airline industry relies on checklists for safety, and how a much-maligned executive turned his passion for safety into a company turnaround that not only built the business financially but transformed the company culture.
Up for a laugh along with your management lesson? Look no further than this short and powerful book. At the height of World War II the OSS (predecessor to the CIA) came up with some simple rules to infiltrate and sabotage enemy organizations. Sadly, these very same principles are the ways we often do business today. Ideas such as “put everything to committee” and “use excessive caution” can pose as great ideas for business, but these are the ways that organizations grind to a screeching halt. Worry not, there are solutions to these modern problems told in hilarious, thoughtful and actionable ways.
History is such a good teacher, don’t you think? I was lucky enough to study with one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars who told our class, “all of Shakespeare is about power. The positive use of it and the negative use of it.” As you are getting ready to take the mantle of power in your organization, you can do no wrong studying Shakespeare. Read the texts or watch your favorite movie version. Either way, it will be an entertaining and valuable lesson.
Bonus reading for those of us focused on diversity:
Amber Ruffin is a comedy writer for Seth Meyers and just landed her own show on Peacock. If one of your goals is to be more inclusive, this book is an amazing resource. Smart, insightful and searing in its observations, this book is a must-read for anyone in management today. A sample story is when Lacey (Amber’s sister who lives in Omaha) attends a meeting only to be told by the meeting leader that they can’t wait to go meet with Lacey (who was in the room). Apparently, everyone thought that Lacey was the other black woman working for the company.
Other work that supports and expands the premise of this newsletter.
Journal of Business Strategy 11/2001
Reason to Buy/Read: This book moves beyond GE, Wal-Mart, and all the other usual suspects we’ve been inundated with. Even better, the author has found a group of companies that have actually outperformed all the previous superstars, using tough metrics.
Collins was inspired to track the inner workings of companies that were good but made the leap to great–and sustained that leap for at least 15 years after the shift. The good-to-great companies averaged returns 6.9 times the general market in the 15 years following their transition point (when the company’s performance relative to general stock market turns upward after a period of at or below-market performance and never falls to that point again.) For comparison, GE outperformed the market by 2.8 times over 15 years from 1985 to 2000.
It’s hardly a surprise that the book is the fruit of a five-year research journey, given the breadth of data that had to be considered and tracked. By necessity, private companies are excluded from the study, since the kind of data the author and his team needed is available only from publicly traded companies. The author also made a point to eliminate those companies that found themselves “on the nose cone of a rocket when it took off.” Key to the credibility of the conclusions is the equally in-depth study of a group of comparison companies, in the same industries as the ones that made the cut, that had similar resources in the same time period but failed either to make the leap or to sustain it.
Beyond finding the companies, the author does an excellent job pulling together the framework of ideas–the essential and distinguishing features that link all the companies that make the transition. Virtually all the “conclusions” he draws are data-based and not opinion or extrapolation. One exception is Collins’ theory that “good” is the enemy of “great,” in that when you’re good, you lose incentive to move to great. It’s possible that it’s not lack of motivation but just not knowing how to push further. If that’s the case with your company, maybe this book can guide you.
The book profiles in various depths 11 good-to-great companies, 11 direct comparisons, and six unsustained comparisons. Note this: No celebrity leaders pulled off the good-to-great switch. NONE. There’s no systematic pattern linking specific forms of executive compensation strategy to performance.
Placement in Your Life: Reading this book will give you the spell to lift the myth of you being the be-all-end-all leader and move ahead into even better performance. Read it over the course of a few evenings before bed to instill in yourself the consistency and discipline to build the momentum for change. You’ll wake up each morning with an action plan.
How to Read: If you’ve read the author’s previous book, Built to Last it’ll take you no more than three pages to realize this book is its prequel. Don’t worry, the last chapter deals with how the two link, and you can read this one without reviewing the old one.
This is a classic read-straight-through manual, though the author provides boxes of insights and notes, plus most chapters conclude with key lessons and summary findings.
There are plenty of opportunities for intelligent skimming, namely when the author oversells his theory or when you already know the outcome of the situation being covered. For example, he crows a little loudly with examples like Darwin Smith, the mild-mannered in-house lawyer who becomes chief of Kimberly-Clark. Within 20 years, he turns Kimberly-Clark into the leading paper-based consumer products company in the world. It generates stock returns 4.1 times the general market, beating direct rivals Scott Paper and Procter & Gamble, and outperforming Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, and GE. And then there’s Alan Wurtzel of Circuit City. If you had invested $1 in Circuit City and $1 in GE on the day Jack Welch took over in 1981 and held the stock to Jan 1, 2000, your Circuit City investment would be worth six times more than your GE stake. Alright! So he picked good companies.
And Rubbermaid’s success is no mystery. It generated 40 consecutive quarters of earnings growth under Stanley Gault’s leadership. His chosen successor lasted only one year, and the next in line faced a management team so shallow that he had to shoulder four jobs while scrambling to find a number two. Author’s point: It’s not enough to do a good job leading the company, you have to make sure it survives after you leave. (Those looking for great talking points on big failures will love Appendix 8.A, AKA the Doom Loop, which shows what went wrong with the comparison companies.)
But don’t skim everything. In fact, you’ll want to read some of the text closely to pick up the subtext. One thing that stands out is that none of these companies was distinguished first and foremost by strategy (the comparison companies and failures had strategies too). The mindset that did move them apart was an approach of “First who, then what.” The good-to-great leaders don’t begin by setting a vision or strategy. They first get the right people into in the right seats on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, and then they figure where to drive it.
This is certainly an important message in times of rapid change. It also eliminates a lot of typical management issues (if you hire the right people in the first place, they won’t have to be tightly managed or fired up).
Another such message woven throughout the book is how none of these leaders are concerned with their own reputations for personal greatness. All are quiet and dogged. The author sums up their approach as “Level 5” leadership: Those individuals ambitious for the company but not themselves, with an intense professional will and extreme personal humility.
Unintended Effect: The author’s hedgehog concept (do one big thing well) could be fleshed out in its own book. The key is to understand what your organization can be the best in the world at, and, equally important, what it cannot be the best at (not what it wants to be the best at).
If you cannot be the best in the world at your core business, then your core business cannot form the basis for your hedgehog concept. The one big thing, of course, has to be something that makes money.
Irresistible Miscellanea: Every member of the executive team put in place in 1983 by Carl Reichardt, CEO of Wells Fargo, went on to become CEO of a major company.
“Therefore is it most expedient for the wise… to be the trumpet of his own virtues…”
–Benedick to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare
The verbal banter of Benedick and Beatrice aside, few people would want to be known as self-promoters. Wise? Hardly. Or is it?
We all know people who get ahead because they are gifted artists at the practice of getting the boss’ recognition—even if others have done most of the work. So do we swallow our sensibilities and start taking trumpet lessons or do we stick to what we say we believe and let the chips fall where they may? Is personal humility simply a recipe for mediocrity—at least in terms of the world’s recognition—or is it a form of integrity that will be recognized eventually? It is a difficult dilemma for many aspiring leaders, particularly in organizations where recognition is sorely lacking.
Ozymandius and the art of building a legacy
In a leadership seminar not too long ago, we discussed the importance of building a legacy in the lives of others rather than building monuments to ourselves. We all agreed that it is more important for leaders to focus on the development of those behind them instead of self-promotion. We were reflecting on the Shelley poem “Ozymandius” as a metaphor for our generation:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
There was a great deal of agreement around the room that the self-promoters are people who don’t build trust or loyalty or leave anything but an empty, self-authored legacy. Lots of heads were nodding.
At that point someone asked rather plaintively, “But if I don’t blow my own horn, how will anyone know what I’ve done? I’ll never get ahead.” This comment prompted a shift in the discussion, with various participants asserting that all this talk of humility and legacy doesn’t fit reality.
It’s become somewhat of a truism that if you don’t call attention somehow to your own achievements, no one else will. But the rules of logic would say that’s simply an assertion. Let’s look at the facts.
To Be Level 5 or Not to Be?
Probably the most compelling work I have seen on the subject of self-promotion vs. humility is the discussion of Level 5 leadership in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Collins’ goal was to identify why some companies can make the transition from being just pretty good to being truly great performers. His method was to turn two dozen graduate students loose on the research question and then let them build a mountain of data that gradually, in a seminar format, they began to distill into wisdom under Jim Collins’ guidance. For almost five years they analyzed, discussed, and debated before reaching their conclusions. They found that one of the essential factors in the leap from “good to great” was a form of leadership based on humility and a focus on the organization which Collins and his team dubbed “Level 5 leadership.” Look at a brief synopsis of the findings in a comparison between the two “successful” types, with Level 5 being clearly superior to Level 4 in overall results:
- Builds enduring greatness
- Personal humility—does not seek the light
- Ambition for the purpose of the institution
- Sets the successors up for success
- Looks out the window—credits others for success
- Looks in the mirror—assigns responsibility for failure
- Builds commitment to a vision
- Stimulates high-performance standards
- Large ego – high level of personal charisma
- Does not provide for the successors
- Looks out the window to place blame
- Looks in the mirror to claim success
What they found rather amazed them. Many of the companies that actually had the best-sustained results over time and that at some point had begun that trend upward were actually somewhat obscure. One reason they were obscure was that their CEOs were people who shunned the limelight and tended to talk in terms of “we” not “me.” It was not that Level 4 leaders were poor. They did succeed, but they did not succeed as fully as the Level 5 leaders.
And more importantly, their organizations did not sustain the success after they left. Those who did succeed over time and turn things around consistently were leaders who were personally humble and well-focused on the purpose of the organization, not just their own careers. They built up those around them and developed successors who carried on the organization with the same values.
The Derailment Conspiracy
Yet our eyes do not deceive us; self-promoters can and do get ahead. Although Level 4 leaders are more about personal charisma, blaming others and taking personal credit, they do get results—mostly short term. But, they also derail at a relatively high rate. The Center for Creative Leadership says that “because of the confidence built by (early) success and the presence of demonstrated strengths, it is possible to dismiss potential weaknesses as unimportant or nonexistent.” Interpersonal factors (such as arrogance) and personal flaws (such as difficulty in receiving feedback or dealing with so-called “bad luck”) cause blind spots in future leaders. They find out too late that they have become the proverbial emperor who has no clothes.
It turns out that the lessons of leadership are as old as Ozymandius or Achilles: pride generally goes before a fall. You do not have to toot your own horn, but you should persist in acting with both humility and a resolute focus on the mission. Don’t get discouraged by lack of recognition or early success. Build up the people around you and give them credit—and do the same for your boss. In the long run, at the end of the marathon, you will be working in a better organization with better results and people will love coming to work with and for you. That’s a legacy well earned.
Humility is a top requirement for the emerging workforce. Here’s how both individuals and organizations can tap its potential.
What makes the ideal leader?
Hollywood tells us we want a superhero in a business suit, an individual of charisma and action.
But thoughtful research tells us the truth is more nuanced. The best leaders, according to Good to Great author Jim Collins, display a combination of humility and fierce resolve. They are modest, self-effacing, understated, and fanatically driven by results. And more recent research gives us an even better understanding of humility. It is the integration of self-awareness, teachability, and an appreciation of the capabilities of others. These are traits that allow for inclusive teams and continuous learning that are foundational for creating innovative cultures.
This is going to be more important in the coming years, as it’s a top requirement for the emerging workforce. In our research on organizational culture, we found that millennials listed humility as one of the top three most important traits in a leader, along with strategy and ethics. Globally, 48% say they look for humility in their leadership, while in the U.S., more than half (54%) say this.
Yet even with all this information about the nature of humble leaders, we still find it challenging to nurture and celebrate them. We fall back on our “romance with leadership” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. This perpetuates the concept of the celebrity CEO, which in turn, influences the succession planning process.
The quest for finding humility in a leader is both an internal and external issue. Companies often fail to appreciate the trait in their internal pipeline, and at the same time, aren’t looking for it when recruiting from the outside. To support the emergence of humble leaders, companies must take a broad look at their internal and external search processes, examining their biases and approach to talent management.
Check Your Bases
We often misinterpret humility for a lack of confidence or ambition, but that is not the case. Humble leaders simply express these traits of confidence and ambition in different ways. For example, humble individuals are ambitious for the company, not for themselves. Their life pursuits revolve around the greater whole versus personal gain. We are often biased to think this means the individual is not a “go-getter” and lacks drive. But in fact, the drive is present and strong, although directed differently.
Self-esteem is another area where bias can cloud judgment. Humility at its core is an increased valuation of others rather than a devaluation of self. Humble people don’t often need to seek affirmation or engage in self-promotion. This can come across as a lack of confidence to those used to looking for the rock star leader. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s simply how we have conditioned ourselves to spot what we believe are relevant leadership traits, and what we are attracted to on first impressions.
Humble individuals often do not see themselves as great leaders. That can lead to misconceptions about their abilities and cause them to slip by unnoticed. In reality, this is not an issue of capability, but one of identity, which is something that leaders can develop.
Change the Way Talent is Managed
New tools and tactics can combat the cultural bias toward flashy leadership and encourage humility instead. A key step is realizing that the tools themselves may be part of the problem.
If an organization has traditionally valued charisma and self-promotion, it can be challenging to establish that humility is a valued trait. One company found that one of its key interviewing techniques–rapid-fire questioning for a brief, intense period of time by a panel–worked to highlight people who are socially confident and resilient but does nothing to identify humility.
Charisma can cloud the process, giving rise to leaders who present as stars but are ultimately hampered by ego issues. The Egon Zehnder Potential Model gives companies a framework to evaluate candidates while not over-emphasizing charisma and ambition.
Four Traits to Focus on to Find More Humble Leaders
- Curiosity. They are driven to proactively seek understanding and new learning. This includes learning through feedback.
- Insight. They process information from many sources and use it to shape insights that make sense of ambiguity and break the status quo.
- Engagement. They engage the hearts and minds of others to deliver shared objectives and mutual benefits. This is someone who gains energy from authentically connecting with others and understanding them on a deep level.
- Determination. They enjoy a challenge but don’t let their strength of purpose turn into stubbornness. This person will take on risks with ingenuity and tenacity but can stay nimble and change direction when needed.
Our research shows that in order to detect humility, we must take a closer look at aspects of three of these traits.
- Curiosity is linked to teachability and a desire to see one’s self accurately.
- Engagement is linked to self-awareness and appreciation for others’ capabilities.
- Determination is the “fierce resolve” described by Collins.
Assessments that draw from objective data lets companies better able to understand individual capability, potential, motivation, and aspirations. This process can help companies shed assumptions and focus more tightly on the important leadership traits.
The search for humble leadership is challenging. But for those who pursue it, the rewards are clear.
We worked with one global company with a strong history of promoting based on tenure and very traditional professional networks. The chief human resources officer knew that things had to change to evolve the company’s approach to talent had the opportunity with an upcoming critical appointment. The head of one of the divisions was promoted to become CEO, and they needed someone to fill his vacated role.
The CHRO asked an outside consultant to conduct an assessment of the three contenders to get a more objective perspective because leadership and the board felt there was a clear front-runner for the new role. He was already leading the biggest division and had a confident, charismatic personality. The second contender was also well regarded, known for being analytical and reliable. The third contender was the least known of the three and the least obvious choice. He was introverted and not as flashy as the others.
Our assessment revealed that the least obvious contender turned out to be the best leader of the three. He was far more effective in developing people and engaging in the team’s commitment. He wasn’t gunning for the job, but he wasn’t fighting it, either — a product of his low ego style.
The assumed lead candidate, it turned out, took a more top-down approach and didn’t listen as well, which led to challenges collaborating with and developing his people.
The board decided to choose the less obvious candidate, and he successfully grew the division.
The positive impact of humble leaders has a broad reach. Collins found that with all abilities being equal, teams of humble leaders tend to contribute more, perform better, and demonstrate greater commitment to the company. These results lay the foundation for a culture of innovation and transformation across the organization.
How to Develop Yourself as a Humble Leader
Individuals who are naturally humble can take steps to develop their identity and stand out in ways that are genuine to them.
- Motivate yourself by focusing on how you are driving outstanding results instead of your own success and promote what you are doing as a way for your team to be recognized.
- Think about what values define you as a leader such as courage, compassion, and integrity in order to develop a positive leadership identity that transcends your own personal success and helps you communicate your values as a leader.
- Be as transparent as possible with leadership about your aspiration as a way to drive your development and avoid becoming viewed as a good soldier.
- Developing humility requires increased self-awareness and motivation to change your mind-set and behavior.
- Seek consistent feedback and use a coach to enable desired behavior change.
- Deepen your motivation by connecting it to a bigger purpose and, therefore, the opportunity to make a bigger impact.
Organizations and senior leadership within them must emphasize humility as a desired trait. That means practicing it, modeling it, rewarding it, and evaluating it when considering individuals for promotion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A great man is always willing to be little.” With a holistic outlook on evaluating potential, we can ensure great people rise to the top.
“If we want to improve the competence level of people in leadership positions, we need to improve our own competence for judging and selecting them, especially when they are men,” says organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.
Have you ever worked with people who are not as good as they think?
This finding won’t come as a surprise to most of us, but statistically, these people are more likely to be male than female. That’s right — men are typically more deceived about their talents than women are. And they are also more likely to succeed in their careers. That’s because one of the best ways to fool other people into thinking you’re better than you actually are is to fool yourself first.
I’m an organizational psychologist, and I use science and technology to predict and understand human behavior at work. One of the areas that fascinate me is the relationship between gender, personality and leadership and more specifically, how gender and personality shape our choices of leaders and how those leaders then impact organizations. Discussions of gender tend to focus on the under-representation of women in leadership, which, sadly, is more or less universal.
But a bigger problem is the fact that most leaders are incompetent. Indeed, whether in business or politics, incompetent leaders have negative effects on their followers and subordinates, causing low levels of engagement, trust and productivity and high levels of burnout and stress.
Just google “my boss is” to see what most people think of their managers (and maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel a bit better about your manager). You’ll see words like “crazy,” “abusive,” “unbearable,” “toxic,” and other words that are too rude to repeat.
So, the main question we should be asking is not why there aren’t more women leaders, but why do so many incompetent men become leaders?
My research suggests there are three main reasons, and the first is our inability to distinguish between confidence and competence.
Across cultures and countries, we tend to assume that confident people have more potential for leadership, but in any area of talent, including leadership, there is very little overlap between confidence (how good people think they are at something) and competence (how good they actually are at something).
The second reason is our love of charismatic individuals, particularly since the explosion of mass media in the 1960s. But this has been turbocharged by the recent digital age. We appear to want leaders who are charming and entertaining, but as most of us know, there is a big difference between an effective leader and being a stand-up comedian. In fact, the best leaders are humble rather than charismatic, to the point of being boring.
That’s why they’re rarely featured in blockbuster movies. For example, imagine a movie on Angela Merkel — she wakes up, has breakfast with her husband, goes to meetings well-prepared, lets other people talk without interrupting them, makes rational decisions, and there are no scandals about her. In contrast, there is a surplus of captivating biopics on charismatic leaders with a fascinating dark side, who end up ruining countries and organizations.
The third and final reason for the rise of incompetent men is our inability to resist the allure of narcissistic individuals — people with grandiose visions that tap into our own narcissism. We’ve always admired famous people, but our admiration for people who admire themselves or are famous for just being famous has been rising for decades. At this rate, future generations will look back at Kim and Kanye and say, “Whoa! Weren’t they modest?”
Much of the popular advice that focuses on helping people become leaders nurtures and promotes a narcissistic mindset: “Love yourself, no matter what”, “Don’t worry about what people think of you” or “If you think you’re great, you are.” Unfortunately, this creates a surplus of leaders who are unaware of their limitations and unjustifiably pleased with themselves. They see leadership as an entitlement and they lack empathy and self-control, so they end up acting without integrity and indulging in reckless risks. In contrast, the best leaders keep their narcissism in check. They care a lot about other people, including what they think of them, and they spend a great deal of time worrying about their reputation, which is why there are very few scandals about them.
So, how do we stop incompetent men from becoming leaders?
The first solution is to follow the signs and look for the qualities that actually make people better leaders. There is a pathological mismatch between the attributes that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. If we want to improve the performance of our leaders, we should focus on the right traits. Instead of falling for people who are confident, narcissistic and charismatic, we should promote people because of competence, humility and integrity. Incidentally, this would also lead to a higher proportion of female than male leaders — large-scale scientific studies show that women score higher than men on measures of competence, humility and integrity. The point is that we would significantly improve the quality of our leaders.
The second solution is to distrust our instincts. Most of us love our intuition, but most people are just not as intuitive as they think. In that sense, intuition is a bit like a sense of humor. Ninety percent of people think they have a fantastic sense of humor. Yet how many people are actually funny? A much lower percentage. One implication is to focus less on the impressions people make during job or media interviews, which are just an invitation to project our own biases and prejudices. Even when we have good intentions, it is not easy to overcome this.
For example, unconscious bias training will rarely help you ignore that the person in front of you is white, female or attractive. In fact, the more you try to suppress certain thoughts from your mind, the more prominent and present they become.
If we want to improve the quality of our leaders and help more women get to leadership positions, the last thing we should do is lower our standards when we select women. This means we shouldn’t ask women to behave more like incompetent men — for example, asking them to lean in when they don’t have the talent to back it up or to spend more time on self-promotion or advancing their own personal interests. It also means not ruling out men because they lack the traditional masculine character qualities that match our flawed archetypes of leadership.
To the extent that we can do these things, we will end up with better leaders. However, progress starts with each and every one of us. If we want to improve the competence level of our leaders, we should first improve our own competence for judging and selecting leaders, especially when they are men.
Thank you for reading!