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Donkin on Work - Leadership

September 1998 - Nurture v nature

Talent does not exist. It is a myth which should be demolished, a study said last week. The research, led by Michael Howe, professor of psychology at Exeter University, would appear to have important implications for recruitment and the development of individuals in the workplace.

The study challenges some enduring tenets underpinning most western educational systems, and the comparatively new ideas on evolutionary psychology that human behaviour is embedded in your genes.

Only last month in the Harvard Business Review Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, argued that people were predisposed to adopt certain behaviour ingrained during the stone age.

By this argument the removal of designated parking spaces and corner offices for executives, he suggests, is a waste of energy because it is natural, for men in particular, to seek out status and to establish hierarchy. The office, it seems, can be as symbolic of executive power as the throne is of kingship.

Prof Nicholson comes from a long line of behavioural geneticists who have tended to hold the whip hand in the development of selection processes for most of this century. He asserts that "there is little point in trying to change deep-rooted inclinations". Thus, with regard to leadership he concludes that "the most important attribute for leadership is the desire to lead".

This may hold true for the leader but does it hold for those who are led? It could be argued that the self-driven cult of the leader has been at the root of the 20th century's most destructive episodes. Is it wise for any organisation, be it corporate or governmental, to allow the natural emergence of leaders? Should not leadership , like any other executive function, be determined by the demands of the office?

The belief in predisposed behaviours does seem compelling, particularly when Prof Nicholson points out that any parent of several children is aware of the differing personalities among their brood. But how can it be squared with the theories of those, like Prof Howe, who argue that excellence is not inborn but determined by a variety of factors such as opportunity, encouragement and endless practice?

The Exeter research noted that the ability of violinists, for example, tended to depend on practice. Equally, practice appeared to ensure that waitresses could remember far more drinks orders than a control group of students. It was wrong to assume, therefore, said the report's authors, that a person needed talent to reach high levels of ability.

It seems a shame that academics should adopt such polarised views but after listening to a talk by Edward de Bono given to the Academy for Chief Executives in London last week it is no longer surprising. Mr De Bono suggested that sometimes people can know too much. "A lot of people with high IQs get stuck in the intelligence trap," he said.

"They have a point of view and the more intelligent they are the better they are likely to be at defending their argument. Many excellent minds are trapped in poor ideas. That is not excellent thinking."

This could be one of the problems of the nurture versus nature debate. If one side were to suggest that the search for talent can be misplaced it might find many more in agreement. In the same way personality traits could be accepted more readily if there was greater acceptance among those attracted to the idea of genetically inspired behaviour that people can also be moulded by their environment.

What is the point of intelligence, after all, if it supports a conviction that turns out to be wrong? Wasn't it Keynes who admitted: "When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do sir?"

© 1998 Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved

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