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/ Winter 2019/Issue 97

Best Business Books 2019: Talent & leadership

Creating safe spaces for all.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019)

Amy C. Edmondson
The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Wiley, 2019)

Beth Comstock
Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change (with Tahl Raz; Currency, 2018)

How is it that at a time of unprecedented focus on leadership — a continuing proliferation of books, articles, degree programs, and big-budget training efforts — spectacular leadership failures proliferate at the highest levels in public, private, military, and faith-based institutions? The headlines are filled with tales of grounded fleets of aircraft, class-action lawsuits alleging a callous indifference to pharmaceutical outcomes, individuals coming forward to describe decades-long patterns of harassment and abuse at the hands of formerly exalted executives, and a contagion of mistrust in the tech titans whose products shape our daily experience.

It’s clear that mere exhortation — Listen! Be a coach, not a boss! Value diverse perspectives! — is ineffective. It’s likewise clear that in an age when rote tasks are increasingly outsourced to machines, and innovation and teamwork have become the keys to organizational survival, the chief job of every leader is to create an environment in which people feel the sense of common purpose, belonging, and engagement that enables their best ideas to surface.

Each of this year’s best business books on talent and leadership is distinguished by startlingly specific diagnoses and descriptions of the roots of our leadership crisis. In the best among them, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, persuasively argues that today’s “epidemic of bad leadership” is caused by a surplus of incompetent men whose flaws perversely enable them to rise to the top. Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, looks at how leaders create fearless (or fearful) cultures and shows the impact of fear on every aspect of performance. And Beth Comstock, former chief marketing officer and vice chair at General Electric, vividly describes the roadblocks that highly motivated and engaged employee–leaders encounter as they try to contribute their best thinking and ideas, behaving fearlessly despite consequences.

The perils of confidence

Inept leadership has become epidemic despite the widespread recognition that organizations can survive only if they retain, engage, and motivate talent. As Chamorro-Premuzic notes, poor leadership is the chief cause of employee turnover and disengagement worldwide; in the U.S. alone, this translates into an annual productivity loss of US$500 billion.

Chamorro-Premuzic writes that a wildly disproportionate number of leadership positions are held by men, and asks whether this is a question of causation or correlation. He argues for the former, which his research suggests is chiefly the result of the difficulty people have detecting incompetence in men. This premise, and the comprehensiveness of the research that underlies it, make this a must-read for our era.

Studies confirm that both men and women tend to equate confidence with competence because they assume that those who do not question their own ability and who view themselves as destined for greatness must have good reason for doing so. In fact, inept individuals tend to be less accurate in evaluating their own talents for the simple reason that they lack the expertise to know what they don’t know. By contrast, highly competent individuals are prone to doubt themselves because their knowledge increases their awareness of their limitations.

Not only do studies show that men appear to be more confident than women, but the number of overconfident men is inestimably higher. And overconfidence, and the assertiveness it engenders, can be extremely helpful when pursuing or angling for a senior position. During interviews, unquestioning self-belief translates as reassuring, charismatic, masterful, and driven — in other words, leader-like. By contrast, competence, which Chamorro-Premuzic demonstrates is actually the chief factor in determining how successful a leader will be, tends to get swept aside by enthusiasm for the dazzlingly self-assured candidate. Of course, overconfidence should actually be viewed as a warning sign that someone will turn out to be a poor leader — immune to feedback, resistant to change, and unlikely to consult others when making key decisions.

Overconfidence should actually be viewed as a warning sign that someone will turn out to be a poor leader — immune to feedback, resistant to change, and unlikely to consult others when making key decisions.

The author notes that our human inability to detect overconfidence in men penalizes competent men and women alike. But his focus is on the consequences for women. His work has convinced him that “the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men” is the chief barrier to leadership for women, rewarding men for confidence alone while punishing competence in women. There is a fundamental disconnect between actual leadership talent and our assumptions about how it manifests, between what it takes to be chosen as a leader and what it takes to lead effectively.

In addition to a wide-ranging and sophisticated analysis of the problem, Chamorro-Premuzic offers a detailed template for rethinking how leaders are selected. It includes recognizing the difference between what makes a great candidate and what makes an effective leader, abandoning oversimplified competency models that focus too much on a single (often faddish) factor, such as “grit,” and looking instead to meta-analyses that indicate the characteristics most likely to result in superior leadership performance. These include expertise, curiosity, appropriate humility, and emotional intelligence. Doing so would give organizations better tools for evaluating potential candidates on the intellectual, social, and psychological capital they offer while minimizing the chance that toxic individuals end up at the top. This would serve organizations well while also leveling the playing field for women.

Safety first

Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson has been investigating and writing about the importance of creating psychological safety in organizations for the last 20 years. Interest in the topic, especially among practitioners, has exploded in the wake of widespread reporting on Google’s now-famous Project Aristotle, in which the company used its algorithmic prowess to determine what common factors distinguished its most effective internal teams. Google’s researchers eventually identified psychological safety as the most important, describing it as “the underpinning” of every other factor, the key determinant of a team’s performance.

In The Fearless Organization, Edmondson brings fresh research, case studies, and insights to bear on the role psychological safety plays in fostering learning, innovation, and growth. In today’s uncertain and complex environment, where work is done in teams and innovation is required for survival, it’s more important than ever that people at every level feel free to speak up, share information, contribute expertise, issue potential warnings, and take risks. Yet the simple truth is that people will do none of these things if they feel psychologically unsafe, because they quite reasonably assess that the cost of doing so may be too great for them to bear.

Edmondson explores how the lack of psychological safety made inevitable some of the decade’s most high-profile flameouts in organizations that were otherwise magnificently positioned to learn, innovate, and grow. Whether it was an automaker trying to avoid emissions restrictions or a financial-services firm violating customer trust, employees clearly understood that their organization was misrepresenting its ability to reach well-articulated “strategic” goals or even deliver on its basic promises. Yet these same employees failed to give voice to what they saw, knew, and intuited because their leaders prized obedience and used fear to suppress unwelcome information.

Edmondson contrasts her examples of fear-based cultures, which stifle learning and innovation, with studies of psychologically safe organizations in which employees are encouraged to speak out, challenge goals they view as unrealistic, and declare what would be most helpful to them in doing their job. These sections of the book are both inspiring and useful because they offer concrete practices for encouraging courageous behavior in the ranks.

For example, it’s widely recognized that innovation requires risk taking and that risk can result in failure. But how do you persuade people who value their job and the good opinion of their colleagues to get comfortable with the notion that the hard work they are doing might not meet with success? One way, Edmondson notes, is to literally reward failure, celebrating teams that kill ideas as soon as they get evidence that things are not working, by giving out bonuses along with hugs. In other words, instead of simply reiterating “It’s OK to fail,” demonstrate that failure is valued.

The creation of fearless cultures also depends on leaders not setting targets and strategic goals arbitrarily. As an alternative, Edmondson and her colleague Paul Verdin of Solvay Business School in Brussels have proposed that leaders start treating strategy as a hypothesis rather than a plan. Hypotheses virtually mandate the continual testing of an idea: getting feedback and recalibrating as you find out how a theory, process, idea, or product is working in the real world and on the front lines. This approach would go a long way toward creating psychological safety because raising concerns about potential problems would no longer be framed as pushback, resistance, or underperformance, but rather would be welcomed as essential information.

Getting personal

Beth Comstock flourished for nearly three decades within GE, sharing that company’s exceptional highs and lows between 1986 and 2017. Her page-turner of a memoir vividly captures the experience of a committed employee trying to bring the kind of innovative and fearless leadership that Chamorro-Premuzic and Edmondson advocate into a real-world business culture that is by turns inspiring and cutthroat.

As she zigzags along her highly distinctive career path, Comstock, who rose through the public relations and digital ranks to become GE’s chief marketing officer, sometimes succeeds brilliantly and sometimes openly fails. But she’s unusually resilient and refreshingly averse to blaming others. And she illustrates the lessons she learns clearly in the context of her narratives, a rare feature in business memoirs these days, which tend to focus relentlessly on “actionable takeaways.”

Comstock moved several times between NBC and the GE mother ship during the 25 years GE owned the media company. Despite widespread recent criticism of the leadership style exhibited by NBC News head Andrew Lack, Comstock describes the unit as one of the “freest places she ever worked,” open to creative and imaginative ideas, always pushing people to think bigger. This near-textbook example of a fearless workplace was a spur to Comstock’s own entrepreneurial awakening, instilling in her the idea that she, a middling PR operative at the time, had what it took to become an agent of change.

She thrived by steering clear of gatekeepers who instinctively stood in the way of new ideas, by refusing to be intimidated by the high-profile leaders she worked for, and by learning from her many and quite painful misfires. One of the most admirable and instructive aspects of Comstock’s book is her willingness to anatomize her own failures, such as the disastrous acquisition of iVillage during one of her tenures at NBC. Digital integration was an uncertain science in 2005–06, and Comstock learned her lessons the hard way and very much in the public eye.

She also did her utmost to learn from the exceptional leaders she had the opportunity to work with. In her first stint at GE corporate, she experienced the “brutal intensity” of the longtime CEO Jack Welch. But she took from her encounters with him a determination to be as transparent and direct as he was, rather than smothering her reactions in a blanket of attempted niceness as she had been raised to do. She notes, however, that the perform-or-else, by-the-numbers culture that made GE a juggernaut in the 1980s and 1990s is entirely unsuited to the level of creativity and teamwork required for survival today. Working in an environment that demanded predictability and exactitude, managers shunned innovation in order to avoid failure.

Comstock understood early that she would never become a player in GE’s buttoned-down corporate culture unless she was willing to stifle what was best and most distinctive about herself. The path she took instead is instructive for frustrated employees everywhere. She accepted the reality and sought to carve out a space where she could contribute and speak as herself “on the outer edge of the inside.” It’s an idea she picked up from Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr, who speaks of the edge as a “sacred space” where individuals can remain authentic yet exercise a degree of behind-the-scenes influence — a zone in which subtle change can occur.

Instead of trying to be liked or accepted, Comstock put her considerable energy into finding ways to be creative and improve the quality of her work. This balancing act served her well when Jeffrey Immelt succeeded Welch as CEO in 2001 and began to shift the company’s focus away from cost cutting, acquisition, and financial services and back to its historic emphasis on innovative manufacturing and R&D.

Comstock, who was elevated to chief marketing officer in 2003, is especially compelling as she traces the integration of marketing into every aspect of organizational thinking and practice. She writes, “In previous eras, marketing was about creating a myth and selling it. Today, it’s about finding a central truth and sharing it.” In GE’s challenging post-2008 years, Comstock sought to link Immelt’s strategy of refocusing the company on intelligent industrial products with a persuasive and inspiring story that connected to its Edison-influenced past, using the digital media that had defeated her in the iVillage era to make the company relevant again.

Comstock left GE in 2017, after a change in leadership at the top of the company, to ponder the lessons she had learned. Her story is more than a memoir or a guide to career management or strategy. It’s a parable of the rocky transition from late industrial-era capitalist success to the uncertainties of the digital age.

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