Don’t Let Wishful Thinking Hinder Your Success

Are leaders born or are they made? Does the development of “grit” enhance your ability to succeed or have no impact at all? Do inspirational professional development activities improve performance or just make you feel good? What you believe may just be wishful thinking and have no basis in truth at all.

Although leadership potential is largely influenced by the experiences people have in their lives, research shows that a substantial amount of whether someone is likely to become a leader is also determined by genetics. For about 10 years I’ve taught a course to mid-career professionals enrolled in a Master’s program devoted to leadership, and I’ve noticed a very interesting phenomenon when I discuss who is likely to occupy a leadership position.

If I frame these research findings as demonstrating that most of what determines if someone becomes a leader is environmental — due to people’s own efforts and experiences — nobody blinks. The students are quite content to accept this conclusion. However, if I change the frame by flipping the coin, and present these findings as demonstrating that a significant proportion of what determines if someone becomes a leader has to do with whether or not they’ve won the genetic lottery, the students revolt. They are very uncomfortable with the idea that leadership development is even partly biologically pre-determined. This is somewhat understandable. Students in this program have enrolled to become better leaders, and they’re put off by the idea, however realistic, that some of their efforts may be in vain. The point, however, is that people willingly accept as accurate what they want to believe, and vigorously debate what they don’t want to be true.

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Dr. Jamie Gruman

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Dr. Jamie Gruman is Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Guelph’s College of Business and Economics. He specializes in human sustainability and productivity in the workplace, and recently published the book, Boost.


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