Simply put: we don’t understand what effective leadership is.

We generally misinterpret signs of confidence as competence, and that’s why we often believe men are better leaders than women, says Columbia University professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his Harvard Business Review article “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” “When it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women… is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women,” he explains. “Leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident, and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and… these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.

Discoveries in the transgender community support this notion that women get the short end of the stick. In Time‘s “What Trans Men See That Women Don’t” article, reporter Charlotte alter says “many trans men I spoke with said they had no idea how rough women at work had it until they transitioned. As soon as they came out as men, they found their missteps minimized and their successes amplified. Often, they say, their words carried more weight: They seemed to gain authority and professional respect overnight. They also saw confirmation of the sexist attitudes they had long suspected: They recalled hearing female colleagues belittled by male bosses, or female job applicants called names.”

If I’m going off-the cuff, no-one really questions it. It’s taken as, ‘He’s saying it, so it must be true.’ Whereas while I was practicing as female, it was ‘Show me your authority, you don’t know any better yet.’

James Ward, a lawyer in San Francisco who transitioned about six years ago

How arrogance really relates to leadership
Men tend to think they’re smarter than women, “yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group…. The best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. He points to these examples:

  • Women outperform men on emotional intelligence tests. Emotional intelligence is a strong driver of modesty.
  • Women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble then men, according to a cross-cultural study involving 23,000 participants.
  • Men are more arrogant, manipulative, and risk-prone than women, according to the same study.

What this data means
Simply put, the same personality characteristics “that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, 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. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.

While good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm, the request for women to “lean in” means that we’re asking women to adopt more masculine leadership traits – leadership traits that have been proven to be less effective than more feminine traits of humility and consideration.

“Most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management. This is especially true for women. There is now compelling scientific evidence for the notion that women are more likely to adopt more effective leadership strategies than do men,” explains Chamorro-Premuzic.

Female managers are more likely to:

  • Elicit respect and pride from their followers
  • Communicate their vision effectively
  • Empower and mentor subordinates
  • Approach problem-solving in a more flexible and creative way (all characteristics of “transformational leadership”)
  • Fairly reward direct reports.

Flipping effective leadership on its head
While we focus on the glass ceiling, there’s a bigger problem: we equate effective leadership with the exact features that result in incompetence. The result: a system “that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody’s detriment.”

It should come as no surprise then that the vast majority of reported workplace bullying targets are women. Their competence generally poses a threat to their incompetent bosses who value masculine leadership styles of arrogance and manipulation.


  1. Excellent…I wish we could paper the corporate boardrooms and all the HR departments with this article. People are so easily fooled….by bravado.


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