Leadership success stories about superstar managers, brilliant visionaries, and transformative role models proliferate in the media to a point where it appears that industry leaders are minted every moment, and the exceptions are almost the norm. We are subliminally encouraged to emulate their glory.
Inspirational stories can help motivate us as professionals, but it’s important to recognize and contextualize these messages and understand that success is not as ubiquitous or as straightforward as others would lead us to believe.
Of course, we all labor beneath an avalanche of propaganda. The American Advertising Federation estimates that, each day, the average American is exposed to about 3,000 persuasive messages, which fuel many myths and in turn strengthen the propaganda’s acceptance.
Not all propaganda is false or destructive. Brush your teeth, don’t steal, shed excess pounds: These admonishments may sneak into our collective psyche, but provide for our basic good. Likewise, the didactic concept that a giving spirit and the willingness to work hard hold great personal benefit can be found in religious scripture, countless forms of entertainment, and even in cues from senior management.
However, too many of the other messages we receive are of a far less salutary nature. Because they are often emotional and not factual, they can be difficult to process objectively, especially when they suggest an easy way out, or a simple path to follow.
When it comes to thinking about our own progress, we must use our ability to recognize these messages that besiege us daily; the dictates of the media and our desire to hear stories or news framed a certain way contribute to our susceptibility. Misbeliefs about success become ardently perpetuated by print and visual media, motivational seminars, and even the fellow chatting behind you in the Starbucks line. To help you effectively analyze and weigh their value, try to listen with an ear to what is not being said.
For example, when the anchor on a business news program announces that someone has become the new CEO of a company, try to imagine the three or four individuals who may have thought they had a chance at that spot. The person reading the news obviously will not mention that, but it is just as real as the news chosen for announcement. When you hear about a startup that hits it big with a new product, or is bought out at a huge valuation, remember that most new enterprises struggle to succeed, that the majority of firms experience slow progress, and that dozens of businesses with good people and products fall short every day.
For the most part, the stories we hear tend to be about the amazing exceptions. Wherever or however you hear them, the writer or speaker wants to raise interest by telling about the exceptional. When you hear such things, discipline yourself to think about all of the unexceptional facts not being reported alongside the news being delivered. These are the norm.
Reporters and storytellers want to catch your attention. We all crave stories about people who slay their dragons and walk into triumph. And the media is more than anxious to comply. Pick up any business magazine or scan a business website and you will read feature after feature about individuals and companies who have attained some sterling pinnacle, usually in record time and, to add a touch of dramatic effect, on a shoestring budget.
In and of themselves, these stories need not harm you, as long as you imagine the full story — the other stories — behind the headlined one. Such discipline will also prevent you from taking these examples and accumulating them into the collective beliefs that fuel and support counterproductive myths.
The truth is that success is the fruit of your personal set of strengths, and all strengths are unique. Leadership does not come through slavish imitation. Of course other people may be enjoying successes, but not all of them, and not in every aspect of their lives. If asked, most people would openly admit to more unreached goals than attained ones. However, only through identifying and cultivating your own best attributes can you embark on the path that presents your optimal chance to succeed as a leader.
Keith Danko is the founder of Witherspoon Partners, a leading player in the alternative asset industry. He has over two decades of experience building and managing businesses, most notably restructuring and serving as CEO of ACAM Advisors. He also served as CEO of CQS US and as an executive director of Goldman Sachs, where he built the firm’s international asset-backed securities business. A Duke University graduate with a Harvard MBA, he is the author of “Within Your Grasp,” has written extensively on trends and careers in alternative assets, and has authored the white paper “Portable Alpha: An Updated Perspective.” Follow him on Twitter at @WithinYourGrasp
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