Opinion: Great leaders are traumatised

15 November 2017 -

Rock ClimberIf you want to identify a successful manager you need to examine their early childhood experiences

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

In the nature versus nurture debate of effective leadership, behavioural genetics points to the influence of both biology and environment on human development. The dispute is about the numbers (percentage attributed to each) and the process or mechanisms.

Arguably, it is the ‘made’ bit that is particularly interesting. Both academia and business question what makes a person want to have, as well as succeed in, a leadership role:

Questions to think about

  • What is the role of parents? Think Tiger Mother. What if the child has particularly if noticeably poor, or wealthy, or famous parents?
  • What is it like to be a member of a minority, particularly one that is openly or subtly discriminated against?
  • What is the effect of growing up in a war zone or a country where massive inflation wipes out savings overnight?
  • What is the effect of being bullied because of some noticeable physical difference or problem?
  • Why is it that many comics talk about learning to use humour to deter bullying?
  • And what of those with early speech impediments who go on to become orators?

Adversity can predict success

Psychobiographers have looked at all sorts of factors to explain the success and failure of prominent people. Some have argued that early, unspecified crises can indelibly imprint children with unusual resolve, as well as drive and risk-taking propensity.

In a theory about leaders, William Therival wrote a paper with the memorable title: Why Mozart and not Salieri? His thesis, backed up by considerable scholarship, was that recovering from major adversity was a factor in the emergence of genius. He developed GAM theory: ‘G’ stands for genetic endowment, ‘A’ for assistances of youth, ‘M’ for misfortunes of youth.

The theory states need to have talent (genetic endowment) in order to succeed: Amen.If you then experience some childhood trauma (M) and are significantly helped through this time (A), your achievements might be even higher.

Mozart, he argues was rich in G, in A, and in M, and that this condition leads to the challenged personality, high in  creativity. Fellow composer, Salieri, although high in M, was short in A. This combination is associated with a different personality, that is low in sustained creativity.

Famous high-achievers who have overcome adversity

Researchers cite famous intellectuals who have recovered from, serious ‘misfortunes’ of youth. Many have experienced bereavement of a parent, sibling or child: Tchaikovsky, Sartre, Dali (pictured), van Gogh, Beethoven.

Other high-achievers have suffered parental cruelty, such as Chekhov, Robert Maxwell, Dickens, Gore Vidal. A few recorded physical and social isolation, notably Joseph Conrad and Einstein. Others experienced a lack of fixed abode: Orwell, Kipling, Balzac.

The positive psychological effects of hardship

Early traumatic experiences can make or break you. The child who has been parachuted into half a dozen schools learns to cope: to make friends, to join groups, to blend in. Boarding school children are frequently shown to learn self-sufficiency, as does the foreign student who has to adapt to new ideas, customs, language and food.

Meanwhile, isolation can prompt children to begin reading prolifically. If you have been through the “dark night of the soul” as a child and survived, it can put everything into perspective.

When predicting leadership traits, adversity might explain how some can face a hostile board or angry group of shareholders with calmness and reason. Similarly, how prime ministers can face Question Time in the House of Commons or the Paxman-style interview. 

Should we manufacture adversity?

There is no reason to seek out trouble. It has been suggested that, whilst sending children as young as six years-old to boarding school toughens them up and enable them to thrive in the cut and thrust of professional life, it may repress them emotionally all their lives.

Long-term relationship problems can be attributed to early isolation and loneliness.

Chronic emotional problems, such as anxiety, depression, resentment and jealousy, can also be traced back to early bad experiences. Family problems including parental incompetence, sibling rivalry and rejection can also be factors. Health and social issues, too, can cast long shadows.

Lessons for managers

Psychobiography is sometimes seen as a ‘backwater’ in psychology but an area of interesting ideas and insights. It suggests as well as all those pretty tests and clever interview questions an understanding of an individual’s ‘life-story’ may be an important guide to their management style and success as a leader.

We are, in short, not victims of our past, but products of our past. Some argue that in life we learn much more from failure than success, although this may be a serious oversimplification.

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