Male and female aspects of leadership

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Among the many business trends that will occupy graduate management seminars for decades to come will be the predominance in far too many corporations and small businesses of incompetent male managers.

If you have not run into them in real life, you’ve met them in a variety of film, television and cartoon formats.

From Dilbert, to The Simpsons to The Office to many more, we have seen, if not experienced the clueless though sometimes charming guy that keeps “falling up.”

We’ve probably all encountered the bluster somehow perceived as charisma or charm — which are somehow commonly mistaken for leadership potential.

You may have noticed that virtually anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women.

And, for whatever reason, men and women – workers and voters – students and colleagues tend to agree.

That is because most of us, almost reflexively, misinterpret displays of confidence as signs of competence.

I must admit that it was one of my most hard won life lessons to finally understand that certainty had more to do with personal willfulness than any actual solid reliance on facts or experience.

And, for whatever reason, in most circumstances, men are more “certain” than their female counterparts.

Refusing to ask for directions is only one example of unfounded certainty in action.

Leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders.

If you think about it, it make sense – an unorganized group, from a couple friends to a nation in distress, needs, more than anything else, a focus, a “strong” clearly defined leader.

For some leaders aptitude is over-rated

As many of us have seen, from the corporate boardroom to the halls of power anywhere, arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain productive, durable high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their own selfish agendas in order to work for the common – and not always tangible – interests of the group.

And, as most of us have learned directly, in sports, politics or business, the most effective and memorable leaders are usually humble.

And whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men.

Who didn’t know this?

A massive cross-cultural study of more than 23,000 participants in 26 cultures indicated that women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble than men.

Another study showed of thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.

And, again as many of us have experienced, what it takes to get the job done is not just different from, but often the exact opposite 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.

This is, of course a pattern reflected in every arena from politics to family reunions to international forums and business mergers.

One of the observations of the 2008 recession is that Lehman Brothers would still be around if it had been Lehman Sisters.

Take me to your leader

The bottom line in history, politics and business is that good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.

Virtually every war, economic catastrophe, civil upheaval and revolution was (quite easily) preventable.

The mythical and idealized attributes of a “leader” (at least at the beginning) embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs, Vladimir Putin, among others), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite dictator/despot here, who will presume and sometimes even proclaim that “Only I can fix it”), histrionic or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician – who will do anything to keep their power and place) personalities.

The tragedy is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that it is these exact characteristics that will destroy the vision and legacy of the average manager and even the most idealistic of political movements.

How many leaders – and important movements – have gone down in flames not because of any inherent failing – or even lack of popular support but precisely the weakness, if not flagrant incompetence of leaders who are more interested in self-promotion than well-being, progress or prosperity for all.

Again, to no one’s surprise, female managers are more likely to elicit respect, loyalty and pride from their followers, communicate their vision effectively, empower and mentor subordinates, and approach problem-solving in a more flexible and creative way – all of which, by the way, are characteristics of durable, if not contagious “transformational leadership”.

In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.- Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle

I’ve always marvelled at the near-gravitational force that seems to pull the least competent to ever higher levels of incompetence.

This has been a never-to-be exhausted field of study found in books from The Peter Principle to Profiles in Folly (by Alan Axelrod) and of course a recurring theme in Dilbert and perhaps even an office or neighborhood group near you.

I have noticed that, with few exceptions, men bungle their affairs. Everywhere I see incompetence rampant, incompetence triumphant… I have accepted the universality of incompetence.- Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle

There is nothing immutable or inevitable about all this – and nothing inherently ideal about female leadership – but men, all too often, have proven themselves incapable of the focus and self-sacrifice women are more likely to bring to the marketplace.

And, two more quotes from Laurence J. Peter:

In most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.


Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it. Don’t we all…..

To see the article that inspired this one, check this piece: