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The Trap of Confusing Aptitude and Leadership

Why "superstars" aren't always leaders.

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I’m feeling riled up, and it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.

That’s not easy for me to admit because I’ve had a cerebral crush on Mr. Gladwell for some time. With my AirPods tucked in my ears, I hear the pleasant lilt of his voice. I walk by doormen who think I’m smiling at them, but my smile is for Malcolm. I giggle like a schoolgirl at his witty observations as if he’s whispering them in my ear at the back of the classroom while the teacher is writing on the blackboard.

But I wasn’t smiling or giggling as I listened to Season 5, Episode 8 of his podcast Revisionist History. I was scowling, and I’ll tell you why.

In support of the theme of the episode–which focused on nihilism and the Peter Principle–Mr. Gladwell shared the research of Alan Benson (an economist at the University of Minnesota) who studied the performance of sales teams using the data of 400 firms and 100,000 sales people. The data shed light on teams’ results under two scenarios: One, when the top performing sales person was promoted into a managerial position, and two, when someone was promoted into the role not based on their individual sales performance but on the prediction of management that they would be an effective leader.

My issue is not with Mr. Benson’s research but the manner in which Mr. Gladwell discusses it. When he references the former group, he repeatedly calls them the “superstars.” When he alludes to the latter, he uses precipitously demeaning language:

  • “Nice, friendly people who are good at collaborating with others”
  • “Warm and fuzzy interpersonal wusses”
  • “Incompetents”

With all due respect, Mr. Gladwell, being a salesperson and being a manager are completely different roles requiring different skillsets. It’s entirely possible that any one individual can excel at both, but as Mr. Benson’s research showed, it is more the exception than the norm for both cohorts.

Because an individual is not a superstar salesperson does not mean that they may not be a superstar leader. Leadership is not to be demeaned. It is one of the most valuable skills there is, and in the midst of a global pandemic, that is more clear than ever. Leaders unite people around a common vision, inspire them, and enable them.

In the lecture he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of 2009, William Deresiewicz explored the idea of the “superstar” versus the leader in a more nuanced and elegant way than Mr. Gladwell did in his podcast:

“Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even excellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning.”

Leadership does have meaning, and there are consequences to putting people into leadership roles that are only superstars in the arena of individual achievement. In the workplace, that creates toxic cultures, and in the world, it creates even more dire outcomes.

So I’ll get off of my soapbox and forgive Malcolm Gladwell because he’s a great writer and speaker and a deep thinker. In my opinion, he’s a superstar, and what leaders understand is even superstars have off days.

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