Finding managers who can successfully make decisions and push a business forward is a difficult task. There are reasons beyond position hopping to explain why the average span for so many types of executives is brief. Academic and consulting expert in personality profiling Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has some answers, but they're not pretty.
First, the problem isn't management candidates in general. Chamorro-Premuzic says that the problem is mostly men, and he writes on the Harvard Business Review's website that the issue explains why there are so few women in upper management positions. Human beings are easily conned by the appearance of confidence . We assume that it means competence.
The people most likely to emerge as leaders are narcissists, according to a 2008 study. They see themselves as the natural leaders and others come to think the same thing, only they are "by definition ... self-centered and overconfident in their own abilities." As Chamorro-Premuzic puts it in a classically Freudian context, the crowd members replace their own narcissistic tendencies with that of the leader.
Hubris, in the guise of charisma and charm, become false proxies to leadership potential and men are more prone to hubris than women. In ancient Greece, hubris was the display of unwarranted pride and arrogance toward the gods, who would then smack down the offender.
The problem with narcissists is that there's no correlation between the personality trait and the abilities to lead or manage. In fact, "arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent--the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group."
Furthermore, women are more humble, sensitive, and considerate than men, while men have a greater tendency to risky behavior, arrogance, and manipulation of others. There is even research suggesting that female leaders largely have the edge on more effective leadership styles. But that doesn't matter if most everyone--and, remember, it's largely men choosing new and replacement leaders--defers to this deceptive show of confidence.
The whole messy ball of wax comes colliding head on with the tellingly-titled "great man" leadership theory as well as one derived from it: the trait model. Under this, people are born to leadership and you pick out the right people by observing their personality traits. The expected traits are largely laudable. But perception is all too easy to manipulate. Men are rewarded for their incompetence and women are punished for lacking the sometimes pathological personalities that advance in companies.
So, what do you do? Chamorro-Premuzic didn't offer any suggestions, but common sense suggests some. One is to critically look at candidates and inversely penalize them for their displays of apparent confidence. The more someone is certain that he understands the problem at hand and can clean it up, the more wary you should be of hiring him. Make a study of leadership theory and what is actually effective and then look for that potential in candidates. It might also make sense to get help from an organizational psychologist or someone else from the outside who might more easily see through the narcissistic smokescreen.