Why All the Leaders Are Above Average

Posted 10.05.2011

My friends at SmartBrief on Leadership run a weekly poll on a question of interest to their 165,000 readers. A great guy named Mike Figliuolo, author of the just released One Piece of Paper, comes up with the questions and offers his analysis on the results. This week’s write up was a doozy.

Last week, Mike asked, “How do you think people would rate you as a leader?” with the choices being average, above average, below average, best leader they’ve ever had or they think I’m a terrible leader. It turns out that 74% of the respondents think they’re either above average or the best leader their people have ever had. How is this possible?

A lot of these leaders may be suffering from what social psychologists call illusory superiority. It’s the same phenomenon that led 68% of the faculty at the University of Nebraska to rate themselves in the top 25% of teaching ability or why 93% of U.S. drivers put themselves in the top 50% of driving ability. It might have something to do with why so many companies use peer benchmarking to pay their CEO’s at the 75th percentile or above. It might have been why former Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office manager, Michael Scott, thought he was so hilariously funny.

Is it possible that you are prone to illusory superiority? Given the stats, the odds are pretty good that you might be. (Me too, for that matter.) So, what can you do to give yourself a better chance of being a reality based leader? Here are four ideas:

  • Get some 360 degree feedback:  A lot of organizations offer or require 360 degree feedback surveys for their leaders. If you have the opportunity to have one run for you, take it. If the results don’t square up with how you view yourself, remember that their perception is your reality. If you want to be a more effective leader, you’ll need to change your behaviors to change their perception.
  • Pay attention to the objective metrics:  Every organization has key metrics that indicate success or failure. It could be the financials, the sales numbers, project completions, new products in the pipeline or any number of things. Are you getting the results you want? If not, maybe there are some changes you need to make.
  • Read history:  The great thing about reading history is that you can get some insights into what effective and ineffective leaders do. It also gets you out of your frame of reference and normal comparison points. One of the suspected causes of illusory superiority is what the researchers call focalism. What that means is that you put greater significance on the things you focus on. If you focus on yourself, you’re more likely to rate yourself higher. Reading history can help shift your focus.
  • Look for what others are doing right:  Of course, another way to shift your self-focus is to pay attention to what other people are doing. A simple thing that’s easy to do and would likely make a difference in grounding your self-perception is to keep a list of things that your colleagues are doing that impress you. Eventually, you’ll have a nice tool for keeping yourself grounded. For bonus points, tell them what they do that impresses you.

So, what do you think? Any chance of illusory superiority going on with you? What are you doing to keep yourself grounded?