Pitfalls of Leadership: Personal Fables

Is your partner out of the room? Good. Let your mind wander for a second back to your first high school love. Do you remember how intense your feelings for them were? Do you recall that sick feeling in your gut when you were apart from them? The profound, undeniable, sense you had that no one had ever experienced a love as deep or as pure as what you were now feeling for John Q. Quarterback/Suzie Q. Cheerleader?

But along the way, something happened and your love went unrequited. You searched for solace from friends, siblings, parents, perhaps even a shrink, all to no avail. Because no matter how many trees you killed in Kleenex form and no matter how many times you told the story of your heartbreak, NO ONE EVER GOT IT. How could they after all? Mere mortals could never understand the unique splendor of what you had experienced with your Schnookums! Psychologists call this illusion of uniqueness personal fable, and it hurts leaders at least as much as twitterpated adolescents.

SURE THAT COULD HAPPEN – TO THEM!

Cook College performed a study in which people were asked to rate the likelihood that a number of positive (e.g., win the lottery, marry for life, etc…) and negative (e.g., die of cancer, get divorced) events would impact their lives. What they found was hardly surprising – participants overguessed the likelihood of positive events by 15% and underguessed the probability of negative events by 20%. What this tells us is that we tend to personalize the positive and delegate the dangerous. I might win the lottery, she might die of cancer. We might live happily ever after, they might get divorced.We understand that bad things happen, but in service of living a happy life, we tend to think about those things in the abstract.

The risk management implications of perceived uniqueness are obvious – if leaders make decisions with the mindset that they are a unique snowflake, they are likely to ignore potential risks. If we feel that we are special, we inevitably ignore lessons from history and from watching others. Worse still, if we perceive upside potential to be “all us” and losing to be the birthright of those other schmucks, we’re bound to do stupid things.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS

So, if you missed the sarcasm dripping from the top of the page, let me point out to you that your relationship with Mr. Hunkyface was probably not as unique as you imagined it to be at the time. What’s more, you’re a lot less likely to hit the jackpot than you might expect. But here’s the trick, by understanding that you’re not all that special, you put yourself in a position to make excellent leadership decisions that might just make your organization, well, special.

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