Could it be that competence matters?
Maybe! This week the walls started crumbling around some of the top leaders in the business and political worlds. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, famous for being rumpled and lying, got smacked down by a unanimous court decision. WeWork founder Adam Neumann, known for outrageous behavior and wild proclamations about ruling the world, was ousted. And, of course, U.S. President Donald Trump moved ever closer to the possibility of impeachment.
Inept male leaders have had an especially good run over the past few years: A reality TV star ― with a track record of business failures and misogyny ― made it to the Oval Office. Male startup founders were showered with billions of dollars for inventing things of dubious value. A judge made it to the Supreme Court by throwing a raging tantrum.
It’s hard not to see some gender, race and class dynamics at work here. Though incompetent leaders have come from all demographics, it’s rare that a woman, a person of color or a working-class anyone gets vaulted into leadership without some track record of competence. Venture capitalists are eager to give money to promising young white men but hold women and minority entrepreneurs to far higher standards. Male politicians get votes based on charm and potential, while female politicians are almost never lauded for those characteristics.
So-called promising men get promoted too quickly, rather than staying put for a few years and learning the ropes, said Elizabeth Stapp, a management professor at the University of Colorado’s business school. And these men are game to take the big jobs before they’re ready.
“Women will decline roles until they’re 100% sure they’ve acquired the skills, whereas men will take the role and learn on the job,” said Stapp. “Men are more inclined to learn as they go.”
She pointed to George W. Bush as a classic example of someone who got way ahead of his skis in terms of capabilities.
Corporate boards of directors may finally be running out of patience with these golden boys, Stapp said. They’ve learned their lesson because of all the recent problems with a few hotshot CEOs. She mentioned the former leader of Uber, Travis Kalanick, and the current CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk. Both men’s troubles are already legendary: “The sort of erratic charismatic leader with wonderful ideas, but doesn’t balance himself out with business sense,” Stapp said.
Neumann, the WeWork founder, was an exemplar of this kind of leader ― throwing tequila-fueled layoff parties, smoking weed on his private plane, overhyping his spirituality. But as the real estate company prepared to go public, it became increasingly clear that his style wasn’t working out.
The company’s valuation has plunged from $90 billion to $15 billion. The initial public offering was postponed. Even Neumann’s banker ― the seemingly untouchable silver-haired leader of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon ― is now facing criticism for not seeing, or overlooking, the trainwreck.
Stapp said the fact that Neumann stepped down before the company went public is a good sign. “Boards are starting to hold the CEOs and founders more accountable,” she said. (Just on Wednesday, the CEO of e-cigarette company Juul also stepped aside, amidst rising health concerns about vaping.)
Are voters going to act similarly?
On Tuesday, the U.S. woke up to the breaking news that a court in the U.K. had invalidated Boris Johnson’s move to shut down Parliament for weeks in the midst of intensifying Brexit chaos. Now, it’s looking like Johnson himself might not make it through the week.
Trump, BoJo’s blustering counterpart in the U.S., seemed to be facing the music, too. Or at least his head was turned in the direction of some faint chords of justice. Thanks in part to the prodding of a few freshman House representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is finally getting serious about possibly impeaching the president.
Questions about who gets elevated to leadership are always urgent, but right now perhaps more so. With the 2020 primaries soon upon us, Democratic voters face a choice: elect politicians with plans and track records of competence or go with those judged “electable,” with the most electric grin or youthful potential?
The stakes are high. Climate change has reached emergency levels. The world needs leaders who actually know how to do things besides relentlessly enriching and promoting themselves.