Organizations propel incompetent people to leadership positions as they care too much about first impressions and rely too much on intuition. We see traits like narcissism, unsubstantiated confidence, and raw charisma as relevant leadership traits. Instead of relying on our instincts, we should focus on leadership qualities like humility, competence, and integrity.

“Weak and incompetent leaders act like strong leaders.”- Tom Pepinsky. 

Humans like strong leaders. Strength attracts us because we believe it increases the odds of success. Why do we promote so many incompetent people to leadership positions? The reason the competence level of many of our leaders is dubious is we cannot distinguish between real strength and bravado, competence, and confidence. We aren’t particularly skilled at spotting real leadership qualities in people.

People with fake confidence can fool us.

Political considerations may also play roles in placing incompetent people in leadership positions. Politics is always a factor whether on a mere organizational level or the national stage. Politics can also complicate calling out and revealing leadership incompetence.

“If we say leaders are incompetent, we are going to fuel extremist, populist, xenophobic, and ultra-nationalist parties.” – Jose Manuel Barroso. 

From the perspective of leadership coaching, the equation of leadership incompetence is somewhat simpler. Here’s a quick look at why we allow incompetent people to lead us.

Confusing Competence and Confidence

We’re genetically hard-coded to view confidence as a sign of strength. People with fake confidence present themselves as natural leadership material, and sadly, we fall for it. Who doesn’t like a leader undaunted by challenges that boldly goes for the proverbial kill?

Being so enamored with confidence, however, we ignore the statistics and science that show there’s almost no overlap between how good people think they are at something and how good they are in reality.

Our Love for Charismatic Individuals

Leadership coaching understands and appreciates the role of charisma in leadership. The explosion of mass media has turned charisma into an essential ability that earns individuals handsome livings all by itself.

However, the qualities that make a media personality successful don’t necessarily make the same person a good leader.

The Allure of the Narcissist

The dominance of mass media has aided the rise to fame of people who are famous simply for being famous. We tend to misread narcissism as an extreme form of self-confidence. People who admire themselves appeal to youngsters. They present their ensuing success as proof that they’re, indeed, as great as they believe themselves to be.

The rise of social media stardom is proof of our inability to read and resist narcissism.

How Do We Stop Incompetent People from Becoming Leaders? 

Executive coaching is about cultivating and developing genuine leadership qualities. The key to spotting an incompetent leadership candidate is to look past the flashy appearance and confident behavior.

Maintaining Objectivity

As much as some people dazzle us with their confidence, bravado, and narcissism, we can force ourselves to look past this façade. It’s easy to refocus on leadership traits that matter. Executive coaching values integrity, humility, and competence.

The eyes of an expert can also spot less obvious leadership competencies that form the basis of intelligent leadership. A leadership coaching specialist can notice self-awareness and emotional intelligence in people.

If we overlooked our first impressions and focused on the substance behind the façade, we’d have a higher percentage of female leaders and more efficient organizations. This would be a significant boon from the perspective of business coaching.

Learning to Distrust Instinct

Instincts are difficult (though not impossible) to override. Intuition is not as great an advisor as we think. Focusing on real leadership traits doesn’t mean one should forget about first impressions. They matter to a degree, but we must not grant them disproportionate weight.

Our intuition often lies, and it’s easy to fool. We can acknowledge its presence, but we shouldn’t read too much into what it tells us.

Business coaching professionals agree that by improving the competence of the leaders they hire or promote, leaders can improve the performance of their organizations, making scaling easier and facilitating flexibility.


Back to blog