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Creating Successful Leaders

I recently watched a highly inspirational TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan, former five-time CEO and “management thinker.” She begins her talk with a study about chickens, performed by Purdue University biologist William Muir. In short, he found that flocks comprised of “superchickens,” or the ones that were the highest producers, tended to fail. They would turn on each other and peck each other to death. The control flocks (groups of average chickens–some high-producing, others not), ended up doing much better and producing the most eggs by far. This is a lesson, Heffernan says, that we can apply to any typical organization.

Many companies make the mistake of pouring resources into the few “super employees” and attempting to groom an elite group to carry the company. This, Heffernan says, often leads to “aggression, dysfunction, and waste. If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.”

So, what does make teams successful? According to an experiment conducted by MIT, successful teams were found to have the three following characteristics:

1. High degrees of social sensitivity to each other

2. No one voice dominated the successful groups–the members all contributed roughly the same amount

3. The most successful groups had more women in them (the scientists who conducted this study are not certain why this was the case, but one reason could be that women typically score higher on empathy tests)

In short, groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other work better together. Ideas can flow and grow. People don’t get stuck. They don’t waste energy down dead ends.

Heffernan goes on to examine specific ways that companies have encouraged teams to work together and bond. Some companies discourage drinking coffee at your desk–instead, you’re encouraged to go to a common room, take a break, and talk to fellow employees while enjoying that cup of coffee. Other companies have office vegetable plots where people can go and pick weeds or water plants when they need a break. All these little connections lead to a big concept: social capital. Social capital is “the reliance and interdependency that builds trust” and it takes time to really grow and build that trust.

The main lesson from all of this is that we are all valuable components of the team, no matter our I.Q. or level of creativity. Diverse teams that are encouraged to grow, share their thoughts and opinions, and lean on each other are the most successful. It’s time to forget the pecking order and embrace collaboration.

For the full TED Talk, please click below:


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