Sunday, March 12, 2017

What is the relationship between leader confidence, leader competence, and gender?

I recently came across an article titled Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” from the Harvard Business Review.  It’s worth a read, and I won’t fully summarize it here, but the author essentially answers his titular question with "because the abundant confidence required to be perceived/chosen as a leader by others actually makes for bad leadership." I think that's wrong, for two reasons:
1. Leadership is partially defined by perception. The author's argument depends on a distinction between those traits required to be SEEN as a good leader by others, and those required to actually BE a good leader. In reality, though, that distinction is muddled; isn’t the former merely a subcategory of the latter? Leadership isn't an individual skill like running or lifting or shooting a basketball, where your actual measured ability is wholly independent from the social estimation of your likely ability. Leadership is an inherently social endeavor - to inspire those around you to effective action - which depends in part on how they see you. Since it's very difficult to have confidence in someone who lacks it in themselves, projecting confidence is probably a prerequisite to inspiring anyone. "Our inability to discern between confidence and [leadership] competence" is grounded in something; confidence is literally part of what defines competence.

2. Even for that part of leadership not defined by perception, confidence helps much more than it hurts. It is a proven psychological truth that confidence begets success and success begets confidence, from a very early age. The line between confidence and overconfidence is defined in relation to results, so OF COURSE the relationship between results and overconfidence is tautologically inverse. But the overall relationship between results and confidence is pretty clearly positive for most things, and the article basically tried to make it seem as if the opposite were true.

The article makes some good points, but ultimately I think there's more of a yin-yang here than it lets on. As much as I roll my eyes at male leaders' bravado, the opposite end of the spectrum is even less competent or bearable.  I made a graph to try and depict this:





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