It’s hard to accurately tell the sex of a baby chick. That’s how we keep ending up with roosters.

We order female chicks, and while they say about 10% of every order might be roosters, those statistics, at least for us, never seem to hold true. Once, we got 5 roosters out of 5 chicks. 100%, not 10%.

We want to keep them, but the problem with roosters is that the more successful they are at, well, being a rooster, the harder they are to keep.

Their job, when fully matured, is to protect the flock. Which too often turns out to mean protecting the flock from us. We are the threat. So going into the chicken coop typically ranges from not much fun to actually frightening.

Our last rooster, before we finally had to get rid of him, we named Yeller Feller.

And while occasionally Yeller Feller physically attacked us, mostly he just postured. He puffed out his feathers. Stood up taller. Moved towards us. And always, always, kept an eye on us. It worked. I would do what I had to do and then get out—quickly.

This is not actual aggression but, rather, the performance of aggression. Meant to impress, intimidate, and ward off danger.

And it doesn’t just work for roosters … it’s successful in the human world as well.

There are important functions to the swagger and puffed-out chest. This performance of aggression can be quite effective at preventing actual aggression, for instance.

Walking down the street with more confidence decreases the chances that you’ll be seen as an easy target for a robber.

And a bit of swagger and self-confidence are important leadership traits. In fact, a colleague of mine who coaches professional athletes told me a story about the captain of a sports team who lacked swagger.

He wasn’t under-confident, he was just too realistic. When teammates asked him about their chances of winning an upcoming match, he’d say, “Well, they’re a much stronger team, our chances aren’t good.”

My colleague had to explain to him that the team wasn’t looking for facts. They were looking for encouragement and motivation in the face of a tough opponent. They needed some of that Yeller Feller swagger to boost their confidence so that they would play harder.

In any leadership role, confidence increases our odds of success by convincing others to follow us and to do their best.

Sometimes. But sometimes it leads to a no good end.

Because all too often humans fall for swagger even when it’s nothing more than swagger.

We routinely confuse confidence with competence and promote the wrong people, follow the wrong person, and elect the wrong leaders.

We mistakenly applaud rudeness as courage and bullying as strength. We’re dazzled by impressions and status more than substance, which is why we fall for narcissists and are taken in by con artists. We’re swayed by charisma and hire and promote based on what we think looks like success rather than what is actually successful. It’s why we fall for Ponzi schemes and shady deals … why investors sunk millions into Theranos and FTX, forgoing their due diligence.

We just can’t resist the sizzle, and fail to actually check to see if there’s a steak.

When we’re unable to distinguish confidence from competence, we can’t tell the difference between those leaders who truly embody a leadership role and those that are merely performing in it.

Research shows that the managers who receive rapid promotions and pay raises, the so-called ‘rising stars’ perform leadership better than their peers, but in practice are less effective. They’re great at self-promotion, great at networking and great at impression-making. But they don’t deliver results. Not like other groups of managers, those who are not self-promoters, those who do a better job occupying the leadership role, not performing in it.Unfortunately, this second group of leaders doesn’t get promoted as often as the first.So is there any hope for us? Are we destined to be duped?

Honestly, I’m not hopeful this is something we can change very quickly. But, there are three things to look for the next time someone crows about their accomplishments, announces their candidacy, or looks for investors:

  • Character over charisma. Charisma is the ability to charm and dazzle, but it fizzles out if it’s not based on character, on something more substantial. Charisma may open the door, but over time, people will see through it. Character, on the other hand, goes the distance. Character is the inner strength to persevere, to be accountable for your actions, to see your failings and mistakes as opportunities to learn, and to care for and respect others.
  • Competence over confidence. Look behind the confidence to see if it’s actually backed up by ability and performance. One key way to find out if someone is truly competent and not just confident is to look at the people around them. Competent people surround themselves with smart people, elevate those around them, and tend to build great teams.
  • Context and culture. If someone is successful in one context, there is no guarantee they’ll be so in another context. In fact, the problem with promoting people on past performance is that it doesn’t take into account that someone’s success was predicated on the context. Once the context changes—a new boss, a new team, a new strategy, and new organizational culture—performance can plummet. If someone’s confidence is based on their past performance in one context, in one endeavor, or in one field, it’s still an open question whether they can maintain their success once the support structures they’ve been used to are taken away.

Confidence has its place—in life and in the workplace. And there are times when we need a Yeller Feller to help us get things done.

But we also need to view swagger through a discerning lens. Otherwise, we may mistake empty bluster for competent leadership—with dire consequences.