The Talent Myth

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September 14, 2017 | James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner | HCI

The talent myth has captivated the training and development world for years, and some have come to accept it as the new gospel. If only you search far and wide, and long and hard, you’ll be able to identify the best and the brightest people and then place them in all the existing leadership roles. Problem solved. No training required; just find the right person. Well, good luck with that.

Talent is overrated. Florida State University professor and noted authority on expertise K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues have found, over the 30 years of their research, that raw talent is not all there is to becoming a top performer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in sports, music, medicine, computer programming, mathematics, or other fields; talent is not the key that unlocks excellence. In studying what it takes to succeed and how people reach their goals, Professor Heidi Grant Halvorson at Columbia Business School reaches a similar conclusion, arguing that the emphasis on talent, smarts, and innate ability has done more harm than good. As she points out, there’s a vast difference between “being good” and “getting better.” Leadership is not a talent that you have or you don’t. In fact, it is not a talent but an observable, learnable set of skills and abilities. Leadership is distributed in the population like any other set of skills.

For more than three decades we have been fortunate to study the stories of thousands of ordinary people who have led others to make extraordinary things happen. There are millions more stories and examples. The belief that leadership is available only to a talented few is a far more powerful deterrent to development than anything else is. It prevents too many people from even trying, let alone excelling. To become a better leader than you are right now, the fundamental thing you have to do is to believe you can be a better leader and that you can learn to improve your leadership skills and abilities. Without that belief, there’s no training or coaching that’s going to do much good.