Why advice to aspiring women leaders may have been all wrong

The numbers of women leaders are not rising despite the growing calls to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace.

women leaders advised not to emulate men

There are just six female CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies and at the start of the year The Equality Trust revealed that they earn 54% of their male counterparts.

Some years ago, Sheryl Sandberg published her book Lean In, in which she argued that women should show more drive and determination, put themselves forward for daunting tasks, and showcase the same level of confidence conveyed by male leaders.

But either aspiring women leaders have been ignoring Sandberg’s advice or, if they have followed it, it has not resulted in promotion.

The “lean in” advice may even be wrong according to personality scientist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an international authority on psychological profiling, talent management and leadership development who argues that it could actually be counter-productive.

It is more likely, he says, that if women mimic the accepted male behaviours of self-promotion, showing ambition and so on, it could actually lead them to mimic the dysfunctional behaviours that are shown by many toxic leaders.

Regular readers may know I have tackled the subject of the “dark triad” of corporate leadership behaviours in previous blogs, identifying the traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy shown by many such leaders.

In fact, the problem, says Chamorro-Premuzic, is that while gender discrimination plays a part in potential women leaders being overlooked, the primary reason why so many incompetent leaders are appointed is because there is a general difficulty in identifying and selecting competent leaders.

He identifies several reasons for this.

Firstly, he argues “there is not much overlap between people’s self-perceived and actual talents for leadership”. Often, he says, the most incompetent leaders suffer from “extreme deficit of self-awareness”. This could also be applied to many politicians.

Secondly, he says, narcissists and psychopaths often lean in. This leads to excessive risk-taking, which may be counter-productive for a business’ stability and growth. Therefore, if leaders are selected on ability to showcase aggressive behaviours we are likely to select a disproportionate number of candidates with antisocial tendencies.

However, the biggest problem with the lean in argument, he says, is that we have double standards when evaluating women and men, leading to women typically being rejected and disliked for being intimidating bulldozers or simply for not being “feminine” enough.

Instead, his advice is that in order to pick the best potential leaders, of either gender, we should be looking for such qualities such as integrity, emotional intelligence and communication skills.

Moderate ambition therefore may be a better indicator of leadership potential and aspiring women leaders’ greatest advantage because it means “having the drive and ability to lead without wanting to become the centre of the universe … perhaps because that place is usually reserved for narcissistic men.” Boris beware!

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