Confidence Versus Competence

The Universe made me write this article.

This morning, I saw these two things in quick succession:

  • A LinkedIn post from workforce and career agility expert Marti Konstant on why the most qualified candidate doesn’t always win the job (spoiler alert: the more memorable person does)
  • Neuroscience News study on how—even as children—narcissists can fool us into believing they are better leaders

What’s going on here is the battle between confidence and competence. I like this definition of both, from Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (And How to Fix It):

“Competence is how good you are at something. Confidence is how good you think you are at something.” [The italics are mine.]

I’m not here to bash male leaders—or female ones for that matter. But this issue bears reflection.

Narcissism = Leadership from a Young Age

That’s what a study of 332 children, ages seven to 14, indicates. When asked who in their group was a “true leader,” kids in 96% of the classrooms picked those with narcissistic qualities.

In this case, the definition of narcissism is a “personality trait that is characterised [sic] by an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement.”

Then children were chosen randomly to lead a collaborative task with their classmates. It turned out the young narcissists didn’t show stronger leadership skills or guide their groups to perform better than others. They were average.

I get that one study doesn’t provide conclusive proof, but it’s sure something to think about.

The Apparent Confidence Trap

According to Forbes, an estimated 8-12% of American business leaders are psychopaths. (That explains more than one boss for most of us). This is a higher percentage than in the general population. All psychopaths have narcissistic tendencies, while not all narcissists are psychopaths.

That indicates that we confuse the narcissist—who captivates us with “alluring charm, bold vision, and unshakeable self-confidence”—with leaders we want to follow. The result often shows up in corporate culture: narcissists are less interested in reinforcing integrity and collaboration.

According to Chamorro-Premuzic, narcissistic leaders also are destructive in these ways:

  • They overpay for acquisitions
  • Their firm’s performance is more volatile: bigger successes and losses
  • Their organizations are more likely to face fraud charges
  • They often abuse power and manipulate their people

Knowing the Importance of Competence

We interview and hire on perceived confidence. But the skills needed to get a leadership position aren’t the ones needed to do the job well.

Know this as you look around your organization—and certainly when you bring in new leaders.

Don’t be fooled by razzle dazzle. Pay more attention to experience, performance and humility. Not only will your people be thankful and stay around longer. Your organization will perform better.