The ‘Male’ Leadership Traits That Encourage Bad Leaders

Google “my boss is” and you’ll see the following auto-complete options: “abusive,” “crazy,” “mean,” “incompetent,” and “lazy.” Opinion surveys produce similar results. According to Gallup, a global polling firm that periodically collects attitudinal data from employees all over the world, 75 percent of people quit their jobs because of their direct line manager. Results like these reveal bad leadership as the number one cause of voluntary turnover worldwide. Meanwhile, 65 percent of Americans say they would rather change their boss than get a pay raise. This shortsighted response fails to recognize that the next boss might not be any better, but worse.

What to make of the obvious fact that most leaders, inept or otherwise, are male? Since women make up around 50 percent of the adult population and, throughout much of the industrialized world, outnumber and outperform men in college, we might expect at least equal representation of women and men in leadership positions. And yet, reality disagrees. In most parts of the world, the notion of leadership is so masculine that most people would struggle to name one famous female business leader. For example, in a recent survey, a thousand Americans were asked to name a famous female business leader in tech. Some 92 percent of respondents had no answer, and a quarter of the remaining 8 percent named “Siri” or “Alexa.” When I mentioned to a client that I was writing a book on women and leadership, her cynical response was, “You mean you are writing two books?” Her response typifies the weak association between women and leadership, and not just in people’s minds.

Even among the S&P 500 companies (which are much more committed to gender equality than are smaller, privately held businesses), we are very far from seeing a balanced gender ratio. By 2017, the proportion of women in positions in these firms decreased as the power of the position increased:

44 percent of the workforce

36 percent of first-line and midlevel managers

25 percent of senior leaders and executives

20 percent of board members

6 percent of CEOs

What if these two observations — that most leaders are bad and that most leaders are male — are causally linked? In other words, would the prevalence of bad leadership decrease if fewer men, and more women, were in charge?

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