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Do we treat Leaders as Individuals ?

We’ve always thought that one of the problems with the many theories and models of leadership is that they harbour an implicit belief that all leaders are similar in some way or at least should be. This assumption also appears apparent when we look at leadership development programmes that require leaders, or would be leaders, to follow the same pathway of learning, leading to the same way of practicing their leadership. We’ve also found leadership types and archetypes quite difficult because of a sense that everyone has to be shoe-horned into ‘one of four categories’ or whatever, based on their once-and-for-all answers to a set of scientifically devised questions.

In reality most people recognise that leaders vary greatly from one another - their pathways to leadership are different, their experiences of life are different, they have different personalities, they may differ in their values and beliefs, their emotional life is different, their brains are ‘wired’ differently, they have experienced different development opportunities, they behave differently, they have different skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses and the contexts in which they work are different - phew! When you put all those factors together it sort of points to uniqueness or individuality.

As you may imagine we were greatly heartened recently when we came across a book that shared our dis-ease and provided an interesting scientific and intellectual supporting argument. In the End of Average Todd Rose explores some of the roots of our study of human behaviour and shows how so much of it - trait theories, development programmes, performance measures, league tables, benchmarking, rankings, etc. are all erroneously founded on the statistically based science of averages. He includes some interesting and humorous ways in which the science of averages has been applied in the real world.

His main concern is that average has become the norm for identifying human attributes and human behaviour, leading to standardisation of the way in which we judge people. In addition, any who do not fit the norms are often by implication, less than perfect. In some cases average is equated with perfection. Because these underlying assumptions are buried deep under our practices we don’t realise the shaky ground on which we are treading when we decide, for instance, ‘who has performed in line with expectations, have exceeded expectations or have had a poor year performing below expectations’.

His argument, and ours, has been, we need to treat people as individuals. Which sounds simple and obvious and many will say ‘we do that anyway’. But when we apply that to our current practices we may see that it not so simple because it actually requires us to rethink much that is heavily embedded in our practices - psychometric testing being just one. Todd calls for us to pursue the science of individuals rather than the science of averages.

How might we apply this to leadership and leadership development:

  • accept that people need to lead ‘in their way’ as long as they meet the needs of the context in which they are working and keep the people they are leading with them.

  • accept that people will come to leadership through different means and to take this into account when supporting their on-going development.

  • accept that people in leadership will have a different cocktail of capabilities, past experience, personality, emotional and cognitive functioning as well as biases, weak areas and disabilities which means they all bring something different to the party

  • design development programmes that provide space for individuality or commission others to do this who know how to honour and nurture individuality.

  • ensure that any leadership/executive coaching does not fall into ‘the averagarian’ trap (see Rose).

  • redesign systems of appraisal that move away from simplistic standardisation and judge people as individuals.

The End of Average: How to succeed in a World that Values Sameness by Todd Rose (Penguin 2017).

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