Competence Isn’t Enough. You Need Champions and Maybe a Little Narcissism

Do you work closely with executives? If you do, you’ve probably run into a few surprising aspects to leadership that don’t get talked about much. For instance, what’s with the common occurrence of charming, good looking executives moving quickly up the ladder when you know they really aren’t as competent as colleagues who have demonstrated more talent? If you work closely with the top two layers, you probably can name a candidate or two who fits that description, particularly if you work in a big company.

Turns out, there are studies that show we can rely on this happening — and that we have only ourselves to blame. To quote the Harvard Business Review, ” . . . (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence. . . This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders . . .” The writer adds, by the way, that these attributes ” . . . occur much more frequently in men than in women.”

I’m writing this article to get us all thinking, not to damn anyone or to champion feminism. At least, not this time. It’s instructive to have data on this human behavior, but the world has worked this way for time immemorial so it’s good to have your eyes open. After all, there’s different data that shows that the best leaders are usually humble – -although “best” usually equates with “uncommon.”

I’m writing this article because I think this candid information can be really helpful in understanding how to do our jobs. Coaching and consulting can obviously become more effective if you recognize that over-confidence and self-promotion are common motivators for leaders, for better and for worse. But the information can also be useful to our own careers and expectations if we think hard about the insights it provides.

In fact, what got me thinking about writing this blog was actually the article, “What to Do When Your Boss Won’t Advocate for You,”  because just the title itself brought back so many memories. Not about executives who downright refused to advocate for me because that wasn’t common, but about those who I thought were advocating and actually, truthfully weren’t. Now I know it was probably not about my work, but more about their own agenda.

The article is full of enough good advice that I recommend you read it. But let me summarize the suggestions so you have the headlines (so to speak):

Release your boss from unmet expectations for advocacy. Forcing someone to be your champion won’t work, and expecting that it will occur automatically since the person is your boss leaves you unguarded.

Find other advocates. It’s unrealistic to believe that you only need one real advocate. Find additional influencers who will champion you in the organization. This isn’t a slam dunk because advocates typically choose their proteges, so be sure that you are working with as wide a range of the company’s leaders as possible.

Article Continues Below

Build a network inside and outside of your organization. Treating others well, providing exceptional service and showing sincere interest in others’ goals will always work to your favor. To quote the article,”The plain truth is that the best leaders have what I call 360 degree advocacy — that is, advocacy from those above them, those beside them (peers), and their direct reports. . . ”

This was originally published at Compensation Café.

Margaret O'Hanlon

Margaret O'Hanlon is founder and principal of re:Think Consulting. She has decades of experience teaming up with clients to ensure great HR ideas deliver valuable business results. She has worked with early-phase and Fortune 500 companies, as well as universities, non-profits and local firms. Before she founded re:Think Consulting, Margaret was an Principal in Total Rewards Communications with Towers Perrin. Contact her at mohanlon@rethinkconsulting.com.