Homer spun a chilling tale about the power of the Sirens’ song. Their beautiful voices beckoned passing ships into a fatal trap. When selecting leaders, most of us are tempted by something like the Sirens’ song: confidence. My research with colleagues suggests that confident people are more likely to be selected as leaders. When we studied groups in our research laboratory, it was those who were most sure of themselves who emerged as leaders. They spoke first, most, and with the greatest conviction. Confident people inspire faith that they know what they are doing; after all, they sound so sure of themselves. People who express confidence are more likely to attain status in groups and more likely to wield influence over others.
It makes perfect sense for us to select confident people as leaders as long as that confidence reflects competence. All of us want leaders who know what they’re doing. When people are asked why they follow those who are most confident, they routinely report that it is because they believe that they are most likely to help the group succeed.
The problem is that confidence is an unreliable signal of competence. In fact, my research shows that the correlation between confidence and competence is usually weak or nonexistent. Students who are the most sure they know the answers to a test are not those who actually score the best. Part of the problem is the imperfection of self-insight; it is hard for people to perfectly know when they deserve to be confident. Another part is that many would-be leaders correctly appreciate the benefit of displaying confidence and are thus motivated to show unwarranted confidence.
If there was ever a powerful example of the triumph of confidence, it is the election of Donald Trump. Trump came to the presidency with both a complete lack of government experience and grandly confident claims and promises. His inexperience stood in marked contrast to his opponent’s long and impressive list of credentials. Savvy politicians like Hillary Clinton studiously avoid making specific falsifiable claims that can later come back to bite them. Yet Trump has not only been unusually vague in terms of specific policy proposals; he has also made plenty of absolute claims that he will almost certainly have trouble living up to, from making Mexico pay for a border wall to bringing back heavy manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt and having a secret plan for defeating ISIS.
What does the research suggest about how we can defend ourselves against the overconfident? First, we should compare their claims with the facts. We should compare a leader’s prior statements with his or her record of achievement. Were promises delivered on? We should also demand clear, specific commitments for the future, and we should be skeptical of vague assertions, implausible promises, and excuses for prior failures.
Trump’s record contained plenty of warning signs, from failures to pay contractors to bankruptcy declarations and the dubious record of Trump University. American voters overlooked these worrisome signs and listened instead to the allure of the candidate’s show of confidence, embodied by his impossibly grand promise, “I will never let you down.”
The attraction of his confidence was strong enough to draw voters away from the guidance of nearly every newspaper in the country that endorsed a candidate, as well as from leaders across the political spectrum, including all living former presidents. American voters followed the siren song of confidence when they voted for Trump. But over the next four years, sharp rocks lie ahead.
Crossposted from the Forbes website: http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2017/02/17/donald-trump-and-the-irresistibility-of-overconfidence/