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How Important Is Natural Talent?

In a recent article written in the Wall Street Journal, author Heidi Grant Halvorson tries to dispel the “Success Myth.”

So what is this myth about? According to her research, it is about how people attribute success and high accomplishments to innate ability or inborn talent. In other words, because most of us believe that there are things we are naturally better at than others, we tend to invest our time in those things that come easily to us and divest our time from things that require more effort.

The problem with this approach is that Halvorson does not buy into the idea that success is really about innate ability in the first place. As a Ph.D. in motivational psychology and an author who essentially studies achievement for a living, she repeatedly finds that measures of “ability” such as intelligence, creativity, and IQ are quite poor predictors of future success.

According to her findings, the real predictor of success is strategizing. Strategies like being committed, recognizing temptations, planning ahead, monitoring progress, and persisting when the going gets tough, are amongst those that she claims make all the difference between success and failure.

Thinking that success is contingent on innate ability can lead down a slippery slope and unnecessarily become a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Buy into her theory? If so, read about in her own words: “The Success Myth

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Have You Re-Read Giants of Enterprise?

In a recent class at Cornell I heard a group of students demythologize famous leaders as part of an exercise. One of my students concluded, “I wouldn’t have wanted to work for Steve Jobs, he seemed like an S.O.B.”

Another student even took Washington down a peg and questioned how bright our founding father really was. He asked weather or not Washington’s silence hinted at tactical stoicism or if his quiet demeanor implied that he often missed the point?

Richard S. Tedlow’s book, Giants of Enterprise, is an exercise in demythologizing leadership.

“Look kiddy,” said Charles Revson, president of the Revlon Corporation, “I built this business by being a bastard. I run it by being a bastard. I’ll always be a bastard…don’t try to change me.”

Revson was speaking to a talented brand manager who he had brought to tears after he demolished a pitch she’d spent months working on.

If Revson was so cruel, then how did he manage to bring the Revlon Corporation to such great heights?

Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder of IBM, didn’t know much about computing. He could understand how a cash register worked, but he didn’t know the mechanics behind building one.

If he didn’t have the technical skill, how did Watson turn IBM into a global force?

No one demythologizes leadership better than Richard S. Tedlow in his still enlightening, entertaining, and engrossing book. It’s a work that must be kept on the shelves of all high potential leaders, current leaders, and those who hope to train leaders.

Tedlow, professor at the Harvard Business School, profiles seven American business innovators and explores what made them successful, what made them tick, and what made them work so hard.

With a keen eye Tedlow writes about, Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Thomas J. Watson Sr., Henry Ford, Charles Revson, Sam Walton, Sam Noyce and all the periphery  characters that made these men’s businesses so successful.

It’s easy to look at these business titans and assume they are endowed with something special, something rarefied, that the normal person can’t quite put his finger on.

But Tedlow doesn’t portray these giants of enterprise as larger-than-life men who stomp around palatial offices having nothing but brilliant ideas. He presents these leaders as human beings who, more often than not, had to pick themselves off the floor and brush the dirt off their knees.

The underlying lesson in Tedlow’s book is that leaders aren’t figures that descend from the heavens, but rise through the ranks and make just as many mistakes as the next guy.

And it’s not like each of these men had brilliant, ground-breaking, ideas. They were each knee-deep in competition, surrounded my players who were doing exactly what they were—and in some cases, doing it better. Sam Walton wasn’t the only retailer that discounted–he had to compete with Kmart, Woolworths, and Target. Andrew Carnegie had to compete with other rivals in the steel business—and had to work aggressively to buy them out.  The list goes on. The difference maker for the men illustrated by Tedlow was their leadership ability and how they managed teams, campaigns, agendas, and moments of great upheaval and change.

What Tedlow excels in doing is showing the micro-skills of execution these leaders employed. In many ways he is a biographer of tactics. He shows us how each of these leaders succeeded because they knew how to get things done, push agendas, and politically survive. And, yes, even manage.

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Labor Day

Through a sea of glistening blue (jeans), you spot a current of croissants and crullers rippling through the break room. Confetti streams the walls in tribute to Ralph from HR’s birthday and hints of nutmeg and cinnamon perfume the room. The mailboxes, disguised as Christmas stockings, contain beckoning paychecks and invitations to a weekend cocktail party celebrating the impressive numbers released from finance earlier in the week. A rare laughter swells out of Ethan Marcus’s office where a group is gathered watching viral YouTube gems. It must be Friday.

This phantasmagorical scene may be deep-fried in hyperbole but it still conveys an essential point of organizational culture: Fridays are different. Office norms loosen and a euphoric air envelops a once stale workplace. As a proactive, engaged leader, the challenge then becomes how to accommodate and engage in this culture shock, while simultaneously advancing an agenda that can’t break for Falafel Friday.

So how do you remain chill without exhausting air conditioning resources and freezing your agenda? A politically savvy leader knows how to infuse some productivity into the celebratory croissants. With your coalition partners congregated and their guards down, you have a unique opportunity to solidify the relationships that will ultimately mobilize your agenda. While your colleagues may burrow into their silos on Monday through Thursday, Friday pops these bubbles and allows information to waft around with the nutmeg already saturating the air.

Today is the shooting star of organizational phenomena; it’s a casual Friday preceding a long Labor Day weekend. My office is a ghost town and I think I saw a lonely hay bale blow by my desk 15 minutes ago. I have a creeping suspicion that my calendar is off and I’ve accidentally come into work on a Saturday or, more troubling, that I missed the meteorologists warnings to evacuate the area.

Nevertheless, I’m not squandering a perfectly fertile labor day. While I munch on abandoned pastries, I chat with coworkers and gain casual background on this office and my current campaigns. Without the pressured angst that pervades other labor days, I gain privileged insight into my organization. Meanwhile, I break to blog about this to the anonymous masses quietly celebrating their Labor Day Fridays in other office nooks and crannies. I hope this message reaches you in time before your day dissolves into a haze of lazy celebrations. If not, no worries. There’s always Monday.

Pic Credit: amirjina

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Earthquake from the (Apple)Core

This week a massive earthquake rocked the country and left people buzzing from coast to coast. While it may be too early to determine the exact damages from the quake, it produced instant market swings and potentially affected nuclear sites in the D.C./Virginia metro area. Luckily finely tuned preparation plans created in anticipation of such an event generally surged into action and thwarted any immediate, major repercussions. Now the world steps back and anxiously watches the news on their iPads while walking their iPoodles; everyone is waiting to see how the dust will settle following this unprecedented upheaval.

My sources tell me that before the seismic activity surrounding Steve Jobs resignation from Apple, there was seismic activity of the plate tectonic persuasion across the eastern seaboard. Maybe we’ll report on that later but the Jobs quake buried all natural disaster news within minutes while the Virginia tremors barely shifted ground.

There will be immeasurable commentary and analysis on Steve Jobs’ resignation and his career in general. His legacy will be immortalized in the forthcoming (and still unfinished) biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson in addition to other inevitable volumes devoted to the Apple mogul. Jobs elevated Apple to the summit of the business world as the company, “flirted with displacing ExxonMobil as the world’s most valuable company by market cap, and…[at one point] had more cash on hand than Uncle Sam himself” (Matlin, 8/25/11). The list of his accomplishments reads like a greedy (and enterprising) child’s Christmas list to Santa.

I know from experience taking Professor Bacharach’s classes that Jobs continually emerges as the model leader in leadership studies contexts. He is one of the most recognizable faces in corporate leadership and his name is synonymous with management success. When Professor Bacharach solicits examples of leaders, he will likely hear a student offer Steve Jobs long before receiving the names of, say, Winston Churchill, Mother Theresa, or Gandhi. There is no argument; the man is a leader guru.

So let’s take a pause from our leadership exploits today and just marvel at the force that is Steve Jobs. We know that Tim Cook will almost certainly succeed Jobs and will likely succeed in his new role. We know, or at least argue, that leadership is not an innate, trait-based phenomenon but something that can be pragmatically and systematically learned and replicated. Jobs was no god and certainly had his faults and fumbles. Nevertheless, the man was a titan and the world shakes today in response to his resignation.

Pic Credits: tsevis

Deanna Lowe @ Fortune magazine and the photographer (Corbis) of the original photo in which this mosaic is based.

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Vacation Vocation

Humor me for a small exercise in meditational zen. As you find your center and begin deep, controlled breaths, your office surrounding dissolve away. You’re transported to a rocky Andorran precipice where a sharp breeze bites at your exposed neck. Surveying the rugged landscape, you glimpse a wild horse commuting between France and Spain across the liberated terrain. As you watch the horse lightly gallop across the horizon, you can almost feel the hypnotic rumbling in the ground as hoof contacts firm ground. The rumbling swells into a vibration that seems to spring from your core. Glancing down to your pocket you discover your implacable cell phone hissing at you like a clammy kitten. Work is calling and they need your help.

This situation may be mildly hyperbolic but unfortunately it strikes too close to home for many leaders. A vacation is for a leader what a tub of ice cream is for a South Beach Diet devotee. Vacations are agonizingly tempting escapes from the intensity of advancing an agenda, but they’re escapes that can potentially weigh down an agenda. Particularly in organizational environments constrained by uncertainty, your campaign is unlikely to take a siesta while you’re lying on a beach on Ibiza. Without your steady guidance, your coalition will crumble like last week’s coffee cake and you’ll find yourself in an uncomfortably sandy position.

So how do you combine relaxed disengagement with manic dedication to your leadership cause? I discovered one solution in the backseat of my Chevy Cobalt last month as I toured the country for a month-long road trip. With four drivers splitting driving shifts from New York to San Francisco (via Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Wasatch Mountains, and Lake Tahoe) I found myself often twiddling my digits in a compressed corner of the car. Unfortunately, though, invading my day dreams was the realization that I had to submit 25 hours a week of research and editing to this blog’s namesake Professor Bacharach.

My epiphany arrived as I whacked my laptop keyboard somewhere between Salt Lake City and Reno on I-80 W: Vacations are inspiring. Tourists absorb constant stimuli as they travel through mountains, deserts, strip malls, and Taco Bells by train, plane, car, or Segway. While you may want to throw your Blackberry into the Grand Canyon, consider instead how you can use your Grand Canyon trip to motivate your coalition and mobilize your agenda. Ultimately, your trip to the Pacific Ocean may prove much valuable to your agenda than your trip to the water cooler.

My road trip ultimately produced pages of leadership fodder and potentially some slight carpal tunnel syndrome. It was extraordinarily productive relaxation.