The Psychology of Effective Leadership: How Confidence Can Be Deceiving

effective leadership

From childhood, we are taught that traits like charisma and confidence divide leaders from followers. But what if we’re mistaken? 

“There is a big mismatch, or a gap, between the attributes that seduce us in leaders or individuals that are considered for leadership roles, and those that are needed to lead effectively,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychologist and professor at University College London and Columbia University. 

After closer analysis, this international expert believes past assumptions on leadership — and the resulting hiring practices — are fundamentally flawed. As Chamorro-Premuzic outlines in his numerous books on talent, hiring and innovation, people tend to be mesmerized by confidence in aspiring leaders, even though research shows that other traits are far better at predicting potential. Here, he shares insights into the psychology of leadership, why we continue to make the same mistakes when it comes to identifying and hiring tomorrow’s leaders and offers a game plan to break the habit. 

The psychology of effective leadership: don’t confuse confidence with leadership potential

According to Chamorro-Premuzic, people tend to mistakenly equate three personality traits — confidence, narcissism and charisma — with leadership potential. 

He attributes this in part to an evolutionary basis and the needs of early humans. “Leadership was mostly about the physical, about courage — it wasn’t very intellectual,” he explains. While modern life requires a radically different approach, we still need to “unlearn” this psychology of leadership and these deeply ingrained beliefs about what effective leadership is and isn’t.

“We nurture and celebrate self-belief, self-adulation and high levels of self-confidence irrespective of whether they are actually coupled or in sync with our skills,” says Chamorro-Premuzic, who points out that people in general (and confident people, in particular) tend to overestimate their abilities — “whether that’s mathematical ability, verbal abilities, knowledge, driving skills or musical talents” — when asked.

If we accept the assumption that expressed confidence equates to actual ability, we also accept the inverse: that people who are aware of their limitations or who are less boastful must be less competent than their showboating peers. 

In fact, Chamorro-Premuzic says the opposite is true; the deeper a person’s expertise, the more they tend to be aware of potential knowledge gaps. 

“When somebody [is] self-critical, capable of self-doubt and not unjustifiably pleased with themselves, we should say, ‘Well, there’s probably some substance there because they are aware of their limitations,’” he explains. “Which is actually one of the key markers of talent in any area.”

The importance of humility, altruism and competence in effective leadership

Chamorro-Premuzic delves into these ideas in his newest book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). In it, he urges employers to be wary of alleged leadership traits that also fit stereotypical ideas about masculinity. 

Because of cultural biases and gendered ideas, people tend to associate characteristics like independence, assertiveness and boastfulness with men — and, he argues, with leadership. As he explains, when these traits are mistaken for leadership ability, it “leads to not just competent women but also competent men being overlooked because they have empathy, altruism, humility and all the things that the world needs.”

Chamorro-Premuzic believes it’s time to look at what research reveals about actual leadership characteristics. He cites humility, altruism and competence as the top three traits of effective leaders. People with these tend to focus more on the bigger picture (and less on themselves), resulting in more effective — and less toxic — workplaces. 

While a competent person can also be confident, Chamorro-Premuzic points out that humility and altruism are mutually exclusive with negative attributes of bad leaders: “When people are very charismatic, they’re not humble. And when they are very narcissistic, they’re not altruistic.”

Rethinking effective leadership, reenvisioning potential

Chamorro-Premuzic’s research shows it’s time to question some of our most fundamental beliefs about leadership. While confidence and charisma can be hard to resist, those traits don’t necessarily translate into actual abilities or future potential of job candidates. 

Meanwhile, interviews can privilege extroverts by creating situational anxiety, which puts more reserved job candidates at a disadvantage. And candidates with more negative traits, such as narcissistic tendencies, tend to interview well precisely because they don’t get anxious. And therein lies the problem with weighting of-the-moment interview performance, explains Chamorro-Premuzic: “After a few weeks on the job, most people stabilise and their environments become quite predictable,” and this is the point at which true leadership talent can emerge.

Employers, therefore, should rethink their approach to hiring based on the new psychology of leadership by shifting the focus in job interviews. Incorporating science to reduce bias, removing rewards for extroversion and selecting for humility, altruism and competence are changes Chamorro-Premuzic sees in our near future.

Chamorro-Premuzic thinks that companies will be able to remove some of the guesswork and bias from current processes by combining emerging AI tools with psychometric assessments. These standardised technologies will provide more scientific basis to interpret past performance and predict potential. 

However, we’re not quite there yet: “I think we’re only at the beginning of this phase, but there’s no question to me that it’s in the near future,” Chamorro-Premuzic says. For now, employers can make interviews more effective by being more mindful that confidence in an interview often doesn’t spell competence after the hire.

Looking ahead: the new psychology of effective leadership

As innovations in technology profoundly change the science of hiring, Chamorro-Premuzic expects that talent professionals will grow and adapt, taking their work to new heights. “The ability to understand humans, and paint a picture of somebody’s profile, or potential, is still something that depends on the expertise that the recruiters have,” he explains.

By combining recruiter knowledge, emerging technologies and the science of talent, Chamorro-Premuzic’s vision for the future transforms hiring and advancement processes for the better — and pushes all of us to rethink what we believe about leadership.

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