In most US organizations, those at the top get paid more. In a capitalistic society, it just makes sense – their greater compensation reflects the fact that they are responsible for having a greater impact on the organization’s goals. And, in a society where money = power = success, those at the top are perceived as more successful.
But that also means that, to earn more money/more success, individual contributors have to get promoted into leadership positions. And what is that promotion based on? Often, on their ability to contribute individually.
Not their ability to lead a team.
And that is a problem.
Because many of the best individual contributors are not good at relating to people.
After all, the skills of great individual contributors – the ability to focus, to shut things out, to master your craft, to do things your way and not let things stand in your way – are not the skills that make someone a good leader of people: knowing what makes people tick and how to influence their behavior.
To use a sports analogy:
Think about what made Tom Brady (darn him) great: the ability, as he was going to the ground under the weight of five defensive linemen – over a ton of muscle and equipment – to spot the only (partially) open receiver in the back corner of the end zone, and then throw off his back foot a high, tight spiral all the way down the field and connect with the receiver’s outstretched hand, scoring the winning touchdown.
Now imagine if Brady retired today and coached Zack Wilson like this: Zack, it’s easy. As you’re going to the ground, just spot your only (partially) open receiver in the back corner of the end zone, and throw off your back foot a high, tight spiral all the way down the field and connect with his outstretched hand. I know, he won’t look open, but don’t worry, he’ll get open for you and score the winning touchdown. Got it? Great!
And, of course, Zack throws another f*ing interception because he’s young, he’s not Tom Brady and doesn’t have Tom’s skills (yet, pray god), he always throws to the first receiver in his progression, he hasn’t learned to look off the defense (yet), and he’s scared as sh*t of all that muscle landing on top of him (again) and injuring him (again).
What if imaginary Tom shook his head and said, “Just work harder, Zack.”
If you’re Zack, how does that help you?
This is often what happens, rightly or wrongly, when you put someone in charge of people just because they were a strong individual contributor.
Can they change? Sure. If they truly are a genius.
I knew one guy who was on the Autism scale, who knew he didn’t naturally have the people skills and studied the leaders around him – really studied – and experimented with the behaviors he saw, failed fast, and kept trying.
He ended up a great mentor to his young teammates.
What made him a genius wasn’t his significant individual contributions, all the technical skills he developed, or his impressive smarts, it was his commitment to adapting his behavior in a way that enabled him to get the most out of the people he worked with.
That is the mark of a true genius.