Fallacy of the “great man” theory

Dr Southgate starts by exploring the way people tend to idolize individuals who have had success, most often men, and that this approach may be significantly flawed. However he points to our innate desire for simplicity as being one of the key drivers for us to feel and behave that way. An individual has had success, if we listen to many of those types of individual we’ll somehow see the patter and distill from it the correct behaviors. Unfortunately that may not be the case.

I started to realize it was going to be a great lecture when he referenced Adam Smith, one of my favorite books of all time being the Wealth of Nations. He points to the failures that have often resulted from appointing a single individual to manage an entire complex process or economy, and contrasts it with the ‘invisible hand’ that Smith prefers as the optimal way for an economy or large function to run. Is it possible then, that the most successful leaders will act more like an enabler for the ‘invisible hand’ to permeate through their organization?

How much luck did they have?

The lecture touches on some other interesting points, such as our tendency to view our contribution to the team more ‘optimistically’ than an outside observer, except people who are depressed who rate themselves fairly accurately.

After that, for me, the most intriguing part came up. We make the mistake of assuming that everyone who achieves got there entirely due to their hard work, however when you look at Olympic and World records for sports where a tailwind is beneficial, they are almost all set on a day when the wind is almost at the legal limit to set a World Record. Despite all their skill and hard work, those record holders all competed on a ‘lucky’ day to earn their place in the history books. How many great and inspirational leaders do we miss because we focus too much on the ‘lucky few’ who jumped on a windy day and were immortalized as a result?

Talking About Failure

The lecture finishes on some really strong points where we tend to ignore the long string of failures our idols often had before achieving success. Often there is more to learn there than there is in the successes as they often were taking ‘just enough’ risks to have the chance of big success while failing often trying. Southgate suggests that some research indicates a 4/1 ratio of failure to success is common among the most successful. So if you’re comfortably succeeding all the time, you may just not be pushing hard enough and trying enough new things. More worryingly if you manage a team and they haven’t reported a failure to you in years, they aren’t innovating and risking failure in exchange for the big successes that really could move the needle in your business.

I hope you all enjoy the lecture as much as we did. Please do visit the original on Youtube, and like, comment and share.