• Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics.
  • He says that the real problem with the “lean in” message is that we’re telling women to mimic dysfunctional traits.
  • We’re often fooled by people – usually men – who are unaware of their limitations and essentially lean in when they don’t have the talents to back it up, he says.

Six years have now passed since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” book, and everyone is now familiar with her main argument: If women aspire to gender equality in the workplace, they ought to show more drive and determination, put themselves forward for daunting tasks, and showcase the same level of confidence we see in male leaders.

This view echoes older suggestions that the gender gap in leadership may be predominantly caused by an ambition gap between men and women, whereby women are somehow less interested than men in actually being leaders – at least if we judge their everyday work behaviors and career choices.

Though probably well-intended, this argument has several problematic aspects, and it may even backfire when it is taken as the backbone of diversity and inclusion initiatives to increase the number of women in leadership.

As I argue in my latest book, the main problem of picking leaders on the basis of their desire to lead – or rather, to advance their career and acquire status – is not that we end up with too many men in charge, but that we end up with too many incompetent leaders (most of them men).

Consider the following findings from the science of leadership.

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Most people have little insight into their leadership talents

Just like in any domain of competence, there is not much overlap between people's self-perceived and actual talents for leadership, so it is safe to assume that when someone tells you that they are a great leader you should not trust them.

In fact, the most incompetent individuals will often have the highest levels of self-perceived ability, suffering from an extreme deficit of self-awareness.

To make matters worse, those individuals have an advantage when it comes to being seen as leaderlike: One of the best ways to fool other people into thinking that you are better than you actually are is to fool yourself first. As a result, we are often fooled by individuals - usually male - who are unaware of their limitations and essentially lean in when they don't have the talents to back it up.

Instead of asking women to emulate them, we should actually improve our capacity for judging leadership talent, using data and predictive assessment tools and relying less on the impressions people make in short-term interactions.

To be sure, just because someone is full of themselves and talks a lot during meetings doesn't mean we should assume that they are leadership material. Perhaps they have the will to lead - but what use is that when it isn't accompanied by similar levels of ability?

Narcissists and psychopaths often lean in

There are dysfunctional traits that are inadvertently selected when we look for signs of assertiveness and confidence. The clearest example of this is our tendency to glorify fearless risk-taking in leaders.

In fact, though we often pretend to value humility, we mostly give lip service to it, choosing instead leaders who are charismatic and disinhibited. This is why we value authenticity and why there is a recent tendency to applaud leaders who are not politically correct - as if their rudeness signals honesty and trustworthiness.

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The truth of the matter is that when we place too much emphasis on people's ability to showcase kick-ass or aggressive behaviors in order to assume that they are leaderlike, we will select a large number of candidates with antisocial tendencies. This is why narcissists and psychopaths over-index in leadership positions.

In contrast, individuals who see leadership as a resource for their teams and subordinates - a psychological competency that turns a group of individuals into a high-performing unit - will not just be more humble, modest, and altruistic, but also act with integrity.

The problem, however, is that these individuals will rarely "lean in" to advertise their drive, not least because their drive is to help the organization rather than advance their own personal interests.

We have double standards when we evaluate ambition in women and men

This is perhaps the biggest problem with the "lean in" argument: Men are celebrated for showcasing ambition - even when they lack talent - whereas women are typically rejected for doing the same, disliked for being intimidating bulldozers or simply for not being "feminine" enough.

This creates a lose-lose situation for women: When they act in feminine ways, they are dismissed because they don't match our (flawed) hypermasculine leadership archetypes, but they can also not match them because being a woman is by definition incompatible with this.

The solution is to focus less on ambition and more on actual talent. After all, people can easily opt out when they don't want to lead - and in most of the industrialized world today, this will not significantly reduce the number of women who are interested in being considered for a promotion into leadership roles.

If instead we look for the qualities that make people better leaders (transformational leadership, integrity, EQ, and communication skills), especially when they don't usually help people become leaders, we will end up with both more women leaders and better leaders. All this, while reducing the likelihood that people see gender-diversity policies as some balancing act of positive discrimination, when in fact women show higher potential for leadership than men.

Finally, it should be noted that all things are best in moderation, with the exception of moderation itself. This is also true for ambition.

The problem is not that we lack a high-enough number of women with leadership ambitions, but that we tend to select individuals into leadership positions because of their excessive ambition, when in fact a moderate amount would enable better leadership.

This may in fact be women's biggest advantage for leadership: having the drive and ability to lead without wanting to become the center of the universe ... perhaps because that place is usually reserved for narcissistic men.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics. He is the chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, a cofounder of Deeper Signals and Metaprofiling, and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University.

He has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics and lectured at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, Johns Hopkins, IMD, and Insead. He was also the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems.

Tomas has published nine books and over 130 scientific papers (h-index 58), making him one of the most prolific social scientists of his generation.