Being singled out as a “future leader” and placed on the fast-track to the top of an organisation’s food chain does not always work out well for talented individuals, write Jennifer Petriglieri and Gianpiero Petriglieri for Harvard Business Review.
You have been tipped for the top. You are the person your bosses and your colleagues believe is going to go all the way. Life couldn’t be better, right? Wrong.
Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organisation behaviour for business management school INSEAD, and Gianpiero Petriglieri, a medical doctor, psychiatrist and associate professor for INSEAD, have spent years studying talented individuals or “high potentials” working in different industries across the world. They believe that, for some, “being recognised as talented turns out to be a curse”.
THE TALENT CURSE
If you have been singled out as a rising star at your company, it is likely your superiors have given you the opportunity to prove yourself. Perhaps you have been promoted to a senior management position or placed in charge of an important account or project.
In this situation two things can happen:
1) Idealisation. Your superiors and colleagues start to see you as special – as the answer to any problems the company might have.
2) Identification. You take on the responsibility for solving any problems the company might have and feel increased pressure as a result.
If you aren’t careful this “destructive combination” will eventually wear you down, making you feel insecure. In an attempt to be all things to all men and women you will start to lose what made you stand out from the crowd in the first place. Rather than using your talent to innovate and to change your company for the better, you will become trapped, turning from “future leader” into “exceptional follower”.
IDENTIFYING THE CURSE
The first step on the journey to overcoming the talent curse is to spot when it has taken hold. You should look out for these three signs of trouble:
1) Proving your talent instead of using it. When your talent is recognised and you are rewarded you might feel that you need to prove that reward is justified. This can change the way you approach your work.
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, has drawn a distinction between children with a “performance orientation” and children with a “learning orientation”. Children with a performance orientation are afraid to fail and so give up on problems they can’t easily solve. In the case of children with a learning orientation, the difficulty encourages them to work harder.
The same goes for adults in a work environment. Talented individuals become so fixated on proving their talent that they no longer take risks, they no longer challenge themselves – they stop using their talent.
2) Looking like a leader, not feeling like a leader. “At most firms, the promise of future leadership is bestowed on those who conform to the desired organisational culture – the values and vision established by those at the top,” write Petriglieri and Petriglieri. Therefore, talented individuals display only the characteristics that their superiors believe make them “leadership material”. Limiting themselves in this way makes them feel “inauthentic”.
3) Living in the future, not the present. When talented individuals feel this pressure to conform in order to earn their reward they start to imagine a future, post-reward, in which they are free to reach their full potential. H G Baynes, a Jungian analyst, called this the “neurosis of the provisional life”.
BREAKING THE CURSE
In order to break the curse you must take these three steps:
1) Learn to accept help. You should avoid simply trying to live up to others’ expectations but also be wary of ignoring those expectations and becoming a rebel. You must strike a balance. In order to do this you must be willing to listen to feedback and learn from others. The best leaders realise success is achieved together, as a team, not alone.
2) Embrace your flaws. Forget trying to look your best at all times and accept and harness the traits that make you who you are. “Much resolve flows from restlessness, creativity from angst, and resilience from having faced challenges we’d rather not share,” write the Petriglieris.
3) Live in the here and now. There is no promised land where you will be able to relax after you have proved yourself to others. All of the pressures and challenges you face will continue; they are part of what it means to be a leader. Accept that and you will feel and perform better.
THE ROLE OF THE ORGANISATION
It should not be down to talented individuals alone to fight the talent curse; the organisations that employ them have a responsibility to support them. Here are three ways in which your organisation can do that:
1) Drop the label. Stop referring to talented individuals as “future leaders” and you will avoid heaping pressure on them to live up to the mantle.
2) Don’t promise a brighter future. Stop offering responsibility in the present with the promise of power in the future. Encourage your staff to ask themselves every day, what if this is it?
3) Grant them freedom. Avoid creating a definition of leadership and encourage talented individuals to go their own way and use all of their talents for their own good and the good of the company.
“The best way to develop leaders, in the end, is to help them lead,” write the Petriglieris. “The best way to learn to lead is to accept that help in the here and now.” Take this advice and together you will be able to break the talent curse.