a confident woman leader looking down at her notebook in the background with a large headshot of organizational psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the guest on this episode of DDI's Leadership 480 podcast on humility and confidence in leadership


The Intersection of Humility and Confidence in Leadership

Having both humility and confidence in leadership is key. Learn how to achieve the right balance of each to work more effectively with your team.

Publish Date: June 7, 2022

Episode Length: 47 minutes

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In this Episode

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, organizational psychologist, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of 10 books on leadership, including "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?", joins DDI to discuss humility and confidence in leadership. Learn about the relationship between competence and confidence for leaders, how feedback can help leaders understand their competence, how leaders can adopt humility in their approach, and more.


Beth Almes:

Hi, leaders. And welcome back to the Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today we're talking about a really complicated but important topic. It's the intersection of confidence and humility in leadership. 

As leaders, we're often told about the importance of confidence and when in doubt, fake it till you make it. But overconfidence can create blind spots that open us up to real risk and can affect our effectiveness as leaders. So we're going to talk about how confidence relates to competence and when it comes to leadership, what's the right amount of confidence and how much should it mix with humility? 

I'm so excited to have with us today one of the world's top authorities on leader confidence, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. He is an organizational psychologist and chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup. He's also the co-founder of two psychological profiling organizations called Deeper Signals and Meta Profiling. And if that's not enough, he's also the author of 10 books and a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. So Tomas, we are just thrilled to have you on the Leadership 480 podcast.

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

So am I, thank you so much for the invitation. It's really a great pleasure and honor to be here.

Beth Almes:

So one of the things that I've heard you talk about in your speeches and in your books is the fact that confidence feels great when you have it. So it makes us feel good about ourselves, we like to see it in leaders. We feel great when our leaders are really confident, we've got that sense of security, they've got things covered. And it's one of the reasons that so many of our revered leaders tend to be highly confident. So if it's great to feel confident, what's the danger?

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

Well, I think before we get to the dangers, it's important to understand that the advantages or benefits of confidence can be assessed or evaluated from a self or actor's perspective. That's you, the person who maybe feels very confident but then also from the perspective of the observers or other people's points of view. And so it's helpful to understand that first of all, there aren't necessarily many benefits for others when you feel good about yourself. 

Let's say you gave a presentation and you thought you were amazing, that's what you thought. Or you thought you were great in an interview or you thought you gave a great pitch to a client or you thought you were very funny with a joke or you sang an amazing song or played an instrument in a very good way.

So feeling good about your own performance is mostly unrelated to your actual performance and therefore, if you look for benefits to actually, feeling good about your performance or your behavior or anything you did, the fake it till you make it kind of a mantra does apply, unfortunately. Because one of the benefits of high confidence is that if you feel good about yourself, you might be better able to trick other people into thinking that you're better than you actually, are. Especially, if your audience is not very proficient or not very competent when it comes to judging talent. 

So to finish with a very simple example, let's say I go to an interview and I'm being interviewed for a position of a leadership or management role and I am feeling great about my talents, my stories. I'm a great storyteller, I tell excellent accounts of situations where I demonstrated courage, grit, humility, and all these things.

But actually, there's no substance to me. It's just me and myself belief. Well, it's quite likely that if interviewers are distracted by style and not very good at actually, cutting through the noise and identifying the actual signals of competence, they'll be like, "Wow, this guy is very good." 

And now finally, we get to disadvantages. What happens if we live in a society or if we work in an organization where more often than not people get promoted on the basis of how good they think they are as opposed to how good they are? Well, we end up with a lot of impostors and false positives and inept or incompetent people in charge. And then there are definitely, lots of disadvantages for everyone else.

Beth Almes:

So as you talk about competence here and its relationship with confidence, I would imagine it's not a bad thing to feel confident about things you really are good at. You want to share that and then it's not a bad thing if you feel no confidence about things you're really honestly not good at. 

But then there are some disconnects where some people feel overconfident when they're not so good and some people feel not confident when they really are quite good at something. 

So how do you start to marry the two? How do you get a good sense of, "How good is my confidence, and should I be confident about it?"

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

Yeah. So I think the starting point is to define both terms because it sounds very similar but they're quite different. So competence is basically, how good you are at something. Confidence is basically how good you think are at something. We know that in any domain of performance or actual competence, the typical correlation between the two is 0.3, you square that you get the overlap which is 9%. 

So there's only 9% overlap between how good you are at something and how good you think you are at something. Imagine two little Venn diagrams, they only overlap by 9%, and they're barely touching each other. And so therefore there's going to be a lot of times where your confidence it's out of sync with your actual competence or the narrowly, we would expect a lot of benefits in having your confidence in synced or aligned with your competence because it helps to know, for example, that you shouldn't cross a busy junction because there is a bus coming and that you're not able to get to the other side.

And it helps to know that maybe you're not very funny or you're not very creative and you shouldn't say certain things to a client or in a job interview. So I think your ability to know what you know and what you don't, your ability to be aware of your limitations is a fundamental adaptational virtue of confidence that is in sync with your actual competence. 

So it's useful then to look at the other scenarios, what happens where in situations where you're underconfident? I mean, this is basically what we tend to ostracize, condemn and almost pathologically, I would say lament and critique in societies especially, Western societies especially, in the US. There's this assumption that people are almost pathologically insecure, that everybody needs to have a Tim Robbins-like life coach to tell them, "Believe in yourself," and that we all suffer from inaccurately low levels of self-belief.

If you walk through any airports and you look at the books or you look at the self-help literature, you would believe that's correct. But actually again, interesting data point, most people are overconfident. The majority of people think too highly of themselves. The reason why there is a low correlation between confidence and competence is because we mostly see ourselves too positive, something that has to do with self-enhancing biases. 

It's a lot more pleasant to think that you're better at something than you actually are to predict a rosy future, to think that tomorrow all your problems are going to go away, et cetera. But if that becomes a habit or if that becomes exacerbated, you're going to live in Lala Land and your self believes and your ego and your self-confidence is going to maybe just match how positively your parents see you or saw you when you were little if you're part of a group where parents told you're amazing even if you're not.

And then when we get to the situation in which you think more highly of yourself, that's definitely, something that is... The dangers and the risks of that are generally underrated. We haven't spent enough time, I mean, I certainly have but in general whether you're an expert, a consultant, a business leader, a thought leader or a self-help guru, we haven't spent enough time highlighting the potentially detrimental effects and the negatives of thinking too highly of yourself. 

But I'll give you a few, if you think you're better at something that you actually, are you probably, won't develop competence. If I think I'm really fluent in German but I can barely speak. I mean, I won't study it and my German will still suck. If we talked about humility in your introduction, if I want to develop humility and model it as a leader and I want to let other people speak and listen to them.

So they're very opposite to what I'm doing now, when I'm mansplaining, humility and overconfident then it helps to actually, be aware of my limitations. And fundamentally the more in touch or the more aligned your confidence is with your actual competence, the more accurately you will be able to assess and evaluate risks, make predictions about the future and all of that happens at the individual level. 

Again, at the collective level or the societal or organizational level, we are far better off if we actually, focus on people's competence and not their confidence. Especially, or not least because historically we assume that high confidence is good because it will actually, develop or translate into competence. This is the self-efficacy or just do it or the myth of whether you think you can do it or not, you're usually right. Or if you believe in yourself enough, good things are going to happen.

I mean, history is replete or full of people who thought they were amazing at something and they weren't and it didn't end up very well. But we don't write biographies on them, they're not the Elon Musk or the Jeff Bezos of the world. So I think bottom line, we and others are generally better off if we can align people's confidence with their competence which as you know is what good leadership development and coaching interventions do. 

They try to help people understand what they're good at and what they're not good at so that they actually, don't operate or live in a delusional universe but in the real world, giving people a reality check is very helpful. And you need to do it in a kind and politically skilled way of course, but it's a much-needed lacking process in the world of business.

Beth Almes:

So one of the things you said here that I think is so powerful is how overconfidence as leaders, one of the dangers that it stops us from learning. So we think we're really good at something and then we think, "I don't have to work on this, I don't have to do this," but it can be hard to know... 

Sometimes we're not super self-aware about what we're really good at, what we're not. So what are some of the cues you can start to look for? The feedback loops that you can say, "Okay, maybe I do need to work on this skill a little bit more than I thought I did or I might not be excelling here quite as much as I thought."

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

Definitely, asking other people. And then the question is how and who do you ask? So let's start with the who, you should ask people who understand your domain of competence or the skill that you are requesting feedback on. So if I don't know, if I want to know whether I am good at playing soccer, it helps to ask somebody who actually, is a soccer coach and not my mom or my best friend or somebody who has never watched the sport and doesn't understand it. 

So ask for feedback from people who have expertise, who are competent and actually, understand the domain or trade or ability or skill that you're inquiring about. They should also be not conflicted and honest and have the guts or the courage to actually be honest with you and tell you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear.

One of the disadvantages of living in a world that is mostly very nice and pro-social and civilized is that we're encouraged to lie to others all the time. So I just met you but if you ask me after this, how was I interviewing us? 

I'm going to say, "Beth, you were amazing, it was great." Because I have no desire to start conflict and I like you and I want to maintain good relations. And this happens more if you work with people, if they're your colleagues. 

And we know that a lot of bosses and managers struggle to provide negative feedback because they prefer to avoid conflict which in the long run generates a lot of conflict. So as people who are honest, as people who are competent and then fundamentally as people who actually, care about your development, who are interested in making you better, that's what great managers and great leaders should do.

I do believe in the leader as a coach kind of framework or model but because that doesn't happen so often these things, these scenarios are rare. We are actually, quite deprived from organic or natural feedback from others and therefore you have this wonderful thing called the coaching and leadership development industry of what you're part of which actually, provides data-driven tools and experts to do this. 

There will be in a world where most leaders and managers provided employees with feedback to align their confidence with their competence and where your peers gave you feedback and your employees gave feedback to you as a leader. There will be no 360 degree service, there will be far or fewer executive coaching engagements. There will be a lot less leadership development gigs because people will be aware of their reputation and they wouldn't understand their strengths and their weaknesses.

And they will be called weaknesses and not opportunities because there's no need for euphemisms when we talk about flaws. So that's basically, the best-case scenario for most managers and leaders. They call in an expert, the expert comes with a tool, a well-designed 360 or an assessment that predicts a 360 or data points. 

And they have the objectivity and the neutrality of a third party who can say, "Well, don't blame me but according to this tool and the people we ask you don't listen, you are too excitable and you can't give feedback and you get upset about things very easily." "What, who said that?" And then that's the reaction.

The reaction, you can see that you were right, the reaction validates the tool. So data-driven tools to provide feedback are critical, they're essential. What they mostly do is align confidence with competence and I have a controversial but I think data-driven take on this which is most of well-designed leadership development and executive coaching interventions have as an objective to lower leader's confidence not to increase it because mostly if you can help leaders or managers understand that they're not as good as they thought, they're going to develop humility, they're going to develop skill and they're going to grow and get better.

Whereas if you have populist and inept or unethical coaches that only care about pleasing the client and making leaders or managers feel good about themselves is like fueling gasoline to the fire. It's like you have leaders who are probably, quite full of themselves and arrogant and narcissistic which is why they were promoted in the first place. 

And then we call somebody to tell them that they're amazing and that they're a star. And sometimes there are coaches who would charge a lot of money because that's part of the narcissistic dynamic that is a play. It's a status thing to have X or Y coach. And then they come and flatter their egos and they tell them, they're amazing. So it's a vicious circle we need to break but there you have it. Those are the sources of feedback. Maybe one more to add which is obviously, technology, wearables, big data.

I mean, we are now living in a world where most of us get automated or AI data-driven feedback on what we do. We look at how many steps with it whether our sleep was okay or not. We can monitor whether we're drinking too much, sleeping well enough, or exercising enough. We monitor our heartbeat, we monitor our cortical activities, et cetera. It's not unthinkable that in the near future we will have APIs or technologies that scrape a Zoom call or a Team call and rate us on empathy or humility or mansplaining.

And that the gap or the void that exists to help us understand the distance between our confidence or our competence is filled or populated with big tech, technology, big data, and AI. After all, algorithms are pretty unemotional and cold, and ruthlessly objective when they provide us with feedback. 

It's not like a boss says, "You're not going to get the bonus because you didn't do very well." Why? "Well, I can't justify it." I mean, if you go down to the nitty-gritty, granular of what happens then you can actually, quantify everything you do and it's a fairer place albeit also more sanitized and cold.

Beth Almes:

So let's talk a little bit then about humility. And one of the benefits of being a humble leader is that ability to listen to feedback, you don't discount the critical feedback and say, "They don't know what they're talking about, that's not me." You're able to really take that and act on it. 

But what does humility look like as a positive trait in leaders? It's not necessarily sitting there and being self-deprecating all the time, "I'm terrible, I'm horrible." Nobody wants to follow that leader but what does it really look like when leaders truly adopt humility and know how to show it?

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

So I define humility as an awareness of your limitations and as a mild version of imposter syndrome. So if you think about imposter syndrome as the pathological and very neurotic condition whereby you are so self-critical and harsh when you evaluate yourself that you feel like a fraud and that's not good, it's not nice, it's not pleasant and it's also inhibiting. And that needs to be tackled by actually, increasing people's confidence so that they're more realistic in their self-views. 

But if you think about a minor version of that, I think you really are looking at modesty or humility. There's the internal side of things which is having a humble evaluation of your talents. So my achievements might be amazing but when I look at them, I don't feel that great. I feel that maybe I got lucky or I had to work a lot or that I still have a lot more to achieve because I compare myself with people who are more impressive or more successful than myself.

And therefore, I just don't believe my own hype and I am self critical, not again in a pathological and inhibiting way but in a healthy way that keeps me real and that actually, keeps me ambitious. To some degree, I think ambition is always the consequence or the product of not being satisfied with your accomplishments and your performance. 

And then, of course, there's the external side of humility, how I present myself. We often complain when people are not humble and we even complain when we think that they're acting in humble ways but it's not genuine. And actually, a world in which managers and leaders could effectively fake humility would be a much better world than a world in which we see their genuine arrogance. 

I have no issue training or coaching managers and leaders so that they can learn to seem humble or come across as humble in a meeting. That means, again, not monopolizing the conversation, asking questions, having the courage to open up about their vulnerabilities, their limitations, spending more time listening than talking, et cetera. So I think all these things are easier to model.

And I think there are still a lot of benefits to having a leader who is internally humble but externally confident and doesn't come across as very self-critical or very modest. Generally speaking at the performance instance, it will help you to come across as assertive and confident when you're actually, delivering the performance. But when you're preparing humility is essential to actually, over-prepare and study and learn and not be overconfident or complacent. 

And you can also think of a scenario where having an internal arrogance that is masked with external humility is beneficial as well. So I think the ideal case, of course, is where you have internal and external but we have to be realistic. And a lot of what you can do in coaching or leadership development interventions is to start by teaching people, especially leaders, how to behave in more humble ways and how to fake humility or model or manage an impression of themselves so that they have a reputation for not being arrogant but being more humble and modest.

Beth Almes:

So this idea of internal versus external confidence and where you question yourself but maybe you project some confidence out there is really interesting as you think about how we are leaders in practice with our teams versus what it takes to get the job. We often hire leaders who are very confident because they sound great. It sounds like, "You've got this." 

And we know that in a lot of groups there are often gender differences, it's not a rule but women leaders tend to be more humble and as a result, they may not even go for a leadership job if they don't think they have all the qualifications and they're not projecting the same confidence as someone else. So how do those two mix in what you need to get the role? You need to show some confidence if you're working in an environment that rewards confidence versus what you actually do in practice as a leader?

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

Yeah. So two really important points. I start with a generic one which is it's absolutely, essential that you leverage confident displays or external confidence and humility in your self-presentation. I mean, in a perfectly logical, rational, and content-driven world, this wouldn't be necessary. We will be just like machines and you're downloading your expertise onto my brain and I assess it and I said, okay, fine. And I don't want you to smile to be polite, to seem interested and to tell me, "Oh it's so nice to meet you," because it doesn't matter. 

So we completely eliminate style and it's all about substance. But in the world of humans probably, 60 or 70% is style. So how you dress, how you present yourself, how you shake hands, how you interact with others whether you do eye contact, all of these things whether we're conscious of it or not interfere and influence our judgment of others.

So even when we think that we're evaluating somebody's competence, we are influenced by both their confidence and their humility. So I might be looking at your resume in an interview and be very impressed by what you have achieved and your previous role. And when I tell you, "Wow, Beth, I mean, you really managed this. This is amazing as that." And you said, "Yeah, but I was really lucky. I had a great team and it was really a function of my mentor," and if that sounds sincere, suddenly your amazing accomplishment and your resume is worth even more because it's embellished by humility. 

On the other hand, if I'm not sure about something and I look at your resume and say, "Hey, have you really managed a digital transformation in the past?" Because it's not clear and you give me a very assertive answer and I don't actually, understand the field. You might convince me and fool me that you're actually, good at it when in fact you're not.

And of course, it gets more complicated when you're actually, not trying to deceive me but you deceived yourself because you thought you were amazing at that job and that's how we get to gender. The gender differences and confidence are very consistent. Women are not pathologically insecure, they generally don't have imposter syndrome. And we don't need to encourage them to lean in because they don't believe in themselves. 

Women are generally optimistic and overconfident as men are but less so than men. So it's more likely to find a female than a male who has an accurate assessment of their competence, who has self-awareness, and who has humility because you need to be in the slightly underconfident or self-critical side of the spectrum to show humility. But of course, the standards or the parameters that we used to either reward or punish or sanction, display of confidence and humility are not fair.

They're not the same for men and for women. We've spent a long time trying to encourage women to show male like confidence and arrogance but when they do were typically, put off because they seem pathologically ambitious or they're out mailing males in masculinity, they look like Margaret Thatcher and that's not okay, it doesn't fit the stereotype. 

And so then when women are told to show humility and to show some modesty and not brag and not be arrogant then we conclude, "Oh, they're probably, not that interested in the job because they're not showing us pathological signs of their visions. They're not very assertive." 

So it's a lose-lose situation or a double bind. On the other hand actually, even for men, there is somewhat of a tax or a punishment if they show their self-criticism, their humility, and their vulnerability because we live in a world where they're competing against more men who show assertiveness.

And again, it's all about the judge's expertise or ability to evaluate competence and talent in others. Generally speaking, people are not very good at doing this intuitively. We're not very good other than Simon Cowell and his team and The X Factor, we're not very good judges of other people's talents and some people might be good. 

I certainly, think I am because I spend a lot of time doing this but maybe that's because my intuition has become very data-driven but I'm also aware that I'm probably, overly optimistic about my abilities. And I'm definitely, aware that just because I might be good and I might be an expert, I cannot do this systematically and consistently. 

I'm a human being therefore, today I'm very happy because I had a great long weekend or something happened and then you come in and I'm not aware of it but I'm positively biased towards everything you say or do, tomorrow, maybe I had a bad day at the office.

So we always say break the bias but the only way to break the bias is to break the humans. Humans are naturally biased and we bring all these things so being aware of the biases, doesn't de-bias our judgments of other people's talent or potential. And because of that, the incentive to fake good and the incentive to engage in effective impression management is very high for anyone. 

So when we tell people, "Let your achievements speak for themselves, go there and be yourself. Don't worry about what people think of you." Those are recipes for disasters, there's never going to be a single person in the world in the history of humanity that manages to follow that advice and get a job or get a promotion. So it sounds Machiavellian, it sounds ruthless but it is what it is.

And just like you want to make a good impression on a first date and you don't want to tell people about all your bad habits and your flaws and that you don't brush your teeth every night and that you actually, snore. You save that for six months after you married the person, same if you're applying for a job you bring your best game and you try to make a good impression. 

And by the way, smart interviewers will assume that you are exaggerating a little bit so they'll discount from the claims you make. And they might discount more if you're a man and less if you're a woman but impression management is a given and confidence and humility are a big part of that.

Beth Almes:

So as you talk about going for a job, there's certainly the confidence that we project upwards to the people above us who are in charge of our promotions, things like that. But then there's also the flip side of how your own team perceives you. So there's an aspect of leadership that people do like to follow confident leaders. They think, "Oh, my leader has got this covered. If I do what they're asking me to do then I will be great. We will all achieve this. This feels really good. We're all going in a great direction."

Now obviously, that can also backfire if the leader is overconfident and you're feeling like, "Okay, I'm working for this guy who's got no idea what to do here," that's very frustrating. On the flip side, people might appreciate the humility of a leader and saying they rely on your expertise but they don't want you to be too humble in that they're worried, "They don't know what they're doing. Does anyone know what direction we're going in?" 

So what's the balance of confidence and humility as you're working with your team and how do you use those two traits to build the trust you need to get people on board with your vision?

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

Yeah. So I think it helps to think first of normal jobs outside of leadership because everybody loves the idea that confidence is really a big career lubricant and a career advancement tool. And we all want to have more of it, et cetera. But I don't know about you but I would rather have a pilot flying my plane who is competent and not confident or a brain surgeon. 

I mean, if I tell you, "Yeah, you're going to have to undergo this very difficult medical procedure and an operation," and this like, "Do I have the best doctor?" "I don't know but he's really confident. Do you feel good?" I think we should really focus on how good people actually, are and this rule should apply to leaders as well. So of course, let's say a team or an organization or a nation is undergoing a difficult turbulent situation.

I think if the leader is assertive and confident and can provide calming and soothing influence on the team by absorbing some of the stress and has the emotional intelligence and the confidence to keep hope alive and tell people, "Listen, everything is going to be fine, follow me. I know what I'm doing." There's definitely, a very positive short-term effect of that which is maybe morale will be intact and people won't collapse, won't stress out, won't have an anxiety attack or nervous breakdown. 

But what if the leader was totally wrong? What if that signal that everything will be right was either a lie or a consequence of their own internal overconfidence? Then that group, that team, that organization, that nation is not going to be better off in the future.

It would've been far better for that leader to say, "Listen, this is going to be very hard and I don't know if we're going to do it but I can tell you that I'm going to be a hundred percent committed to making it work and we're going to work on it together and even though I know that I don't know the answer, I will find whatever way is available to learn it and you're going to help me and be a part of that." 

I think that second scenario definitely, requires a higher level of maturity in followers and employees or subordinates. I'm a big fan of Barbara Kellerman, she's a professor at the Kennedy School of Politics at Harvard. And she always talks about how underrated followers are, we spend all this time talking about leaders but what about followers who A, account for more variability in performance and B, there's always going to be more followers than leaders in the world.

There needs to be a certain level of maturity in followers to understand that it is not just okay but a healthy thing to follow a leader who says, "I don't know," if our definition of leadership credibility or potential is people who pretend to know the answer when in fact they know or they don't, or people who are always wrong but never in doubt. I mean, then we shouldn't be surprised that we have the problems that we have. 

So I think fundamentally it's all about competence and again, to build the competence that enables you to lead a team or an organization through a difficult situation, it would have helped historically to have some humility so that you learn and you develop your competence and you close the gap between the skills you have and the skills you want to have.

And probably, it would've been helpful and advantageous to have some confidence so that you go outside your safe zone and you take risks and you actually, perform in high stake situations. But again, the ideal leader whether it's a stress situation or not is somebody who isn't deluded and somebody who isn't a liar and the trouble is most people prefer positive and self enhancing view of reality than a brutally honest or hyper alarming or negative view of reality. 

But therefore, if our solution is to pick leaders who are great storytellers and who are great entertainers and who are great at distracting us and at perpetuating the delusion that everything is fine when in fact is not, it's not a very good situation to be in, in the long term.

Beth Almes:

Such a powerful message. Having that humility to know that we're not there yet but the confidence to say, "We can learn and work on this together, we can get there," really helps to bring that team trust together. And so far we've really been focused on the leader themselves, "How do I know that I'm doing this right or wrong? How do I know if I'm overconfident?" 

But you mentioned something that I want to go back to which is that leaders are also asked to be talent spotters many times. So if I'm a leader, I'm also asked to spot leadership potential on my team, "Who's ready to step up?" 

So how do you break this cycle of you turn right around and you do the same thing of looking at the most confident people on your team and saying, "Oh this guy's ready and this person's ready." How do you switch your own thinking to also reward and think about on your team, who's really ready for leadership and not just rewarding the people who appear most confident?

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

It's really difficult. It requires expertise, dedication, humility of course, because you can't trust your instincts. And you really need professional help and the help of tools and data, et cetera, to do it. I mean, you have to think that for the vast majority of our 300,000 year evolution, talent was very easily observable. It was mostly about, can you hunt or run fast or fight a predator? Are you courageous, are you strong, are you fast, are you skilled in a physical way? 

And so the traits that actually, made up talent were very easy to observe on an intuitive basis. And on top of that, we spent all of our lives with the same 15 or 20 people so we knew everybody really well. It might be hard for you to assess whether somebody has potential if you just met him.

But if you work with them for six years you probably, know what their typical and maximum level of performance is. And on top of that, the skills that make up talent today especially leadership talent which is the most important one because it's the talent that influences everybody else and is the biggest single agent of influence on a team and organization, et cetera. 

Those skills are not observable, there are things like empathy, curiosity, critical thinking, strategic thinking, intelligence, learning ability, humility, even. And we think we can observe them because we inherited our ape-like brains that trusted everything they saw. And we believe in our intuition but actually, you can't infer it so the only approach I could follow, if I truly were to observe your leadership talent is to put you in a situation and have you lead.

And that cannot be simulated very easily. I mean, you could try to do an assessment center but it's not a real situation. So I would actually, have to look for how you work with a team, how you develop them, et cetera. And that's a no go approach because I have to appoint you in the first place. So the next case scenario is to really break down to the critical and foundational components, what leadership potential is and understand that it's always going to be somewhat specific but you're always going to have these foundational competencies, integrity, intelligence, curiosity, emotional intelligence, empathy, people skills, humility, resilience, et cetera.

And then understand that you can't ask or rely on managers or leaders to be a really accurate source to evaluate these things that you have to put people through an assessment, you have to get data, et cetera.

Because when we ask managers and leaders to do it, inevitably they end up hiring people like themselves, hiring people that look like you is a very socially legitimized way to unleash your narcissism. When you say, "Oh, I have a successor. They look amazing. It's mini-me." "Okay. Yeah, of course. They're great because they look like you," or they're going to be influenced by people who manage up. 

This is one of the problematic paradoxes of internal succession planning or intuitive leadership identification is like, "If you are my employee and you spend 90% of your time managing up and sucking up to me, you're more likely to be my successor than if you actually, spend 90% of the time working, making other people better and actually, you do the work." 

And so leaders or managers are neither very technically competent nor do they have the bandwidth and they are conflicted. And they are the target of all these deception and impression management tactics that employees, smart as student employees will engage in because they want to get promoted.

So it's quite interesting if you think about it even when we say, "Okay. Lean in, raise your hand, self promote more, et cetera. In a normal world leadership identification or the nomination of future leaders whether it's in high potential programs or otherwise would not rely on people putting themselves forward. We would actually, tap in the back people who are very busy working and who haven't thought that they have to spend a lot of the time promoting themselves. 

And I think there is a wonderful quote by Plato, I think from the Republic where he says something along the lines of, "Only those who don't seek power should be allowed to have it," which is very much along these lines of let's make promotion into leadership roles less about self-promotion or other promotion in the case of your manager or your key stakeholders that you've managed to co-opt or enlist and let's make them more about potential and actual achievements.

Beth Almes:

Wow. It's a hard thing to do. Easy to talk about, a much harder thing to do on your team when you're recognizing it. So last I have a question that I ask all of our guests on the show. Can you share with me a moment of leadership that changed your life and your perspective?

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

It's a really good question. And I think for me it was a negative moment, a sad moment, I would say. But it was a very critical moment that truly was life changing because the year was 1998. It was in Argentina, in my early 20s. And after experiencing 10, 15, 20 years of bad governments, one bad government after another. And having the maturity and the knowledge and the intelligence to understand that a country that has great individual potential still fails to organize itself collectively, courtesy of charismatic but incompetent leaders who rise to the top. 

The cherry on top of the cake, if you like, was watching the news and seeing our president escape our equivalent of the white house which is the pink house in a helicopter while there were protests there because he didn't want to do it.

And that's how he quit the job so he just left and fled in his private helicopter and that was his resignation. So at that moment, I decided that I would leave my country and escape in an equally cowardly way, like our president. But just whatever I wanted to achieve or do there would require 10 times the energy for 10 times less rewards. 

And that it matters a lot where you're born and where you stay when you are ambitious and want to pursue a career. Little, did I know that 20 years or 25 years later, I will be writing about charismatic but incompetent leaders in the UK and in the US and that the same profile that I endured and suffered during my teens and in Argentina. Over confident and charismatic people who get to leadership roles without actually, having the talents are competent to back it up would be a pervasive and new universal thing.

But the difference is that in countries like the UK and the US you still have well functioning and cemented institutions that allow you to make mistakes a few times. And you also have societies and values that are still not sufficiently corrupted and continue to work for mostly the good of the majority of the people. But what I'm saying today is more controversial than it was 10 years ago and 20 years ago and I know a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum in the US would find that I'm just living in LaLa Land or being naive. 

But I think for me, it was certainly consequential, it changed my life. I made a big life decision, one of the most important decisions that I made in my life which is to try to live wherever I can and however I can. And it also really instilled this passion I have to understand leadership and to correct or fix or help people fix bad leadership so that we can improve things for everybody.

Beth Almes:

Such a wonderful and powerful story and I appreciate you sharing it. And I hope that all the leaders who are listening to this podcast today have really taken all these real nuggets of wisdom to self reflect on where they should be confident, where they should be seeking more feedback on confidence, where they can be leading their teams with the right notion for growth and humility of the work it's going to take to get where they need to go. 

So I think you've shared so much with us today and I really appreciate you. So thank you for being here on the leadership 480 podcast.

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:

Great pleasure. And I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for having me again.

Beth Almes:

Of course. And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes today to be with us and remember to make every moment of leadership count.

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