Winning as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
March 11, 2014 Editor 0
The maid-of-honor was consoling the bride, desperately trying to keep her makeup from liquefying. The yacht was perfect, of course, and most of the bridesmaids were there as planned. So what was the problem? No pictures. The photographer was a no-show. Well, the bride would make sure that he never got another high-profile job. And to think, all the best families had raved about his genius.
Two hours later, as they lay desolate on the yacht’s sun deck in the warm tropical air, they heard the roar of twin diesels. Looking up, there in the bowsprit chair of a racing boat was the photographer, Paul Barnett, snapping photos from a long telescopic lens. James Bond with a camera.
But of course! You don’t photograph the wedding party on the yacht itself; too close quarters. You shoot from a separate boat! What a genius. Everything turned out OK – spectacularly, really — in the end.
But let me tell you the story from the point-of-view of my brother Paul, the tardy but brilliant photographer: A desperate realization that he had been told the wrong time; a frantic cab ride to the marina, only to see the yacht heading out to sea; a search for a fast boat; a payoff to a nefarious bad guy; the last-second idea to shoot from the bow-sprit chair strapped in like a marlin fisherman. And then, of course, the usual self-assured act later on, as if to say, “All part of the plan.”
Some people have a way of making things go right, no matter how badly they seem to be going wrong. Why do winners seem to just keep winning?
Social scientists tell us that winners keep winning for several reasons. First off, they may just be better. Quality aside, we know that those with a reputation for past success tend to get disproportionate credit for future wins – the “Matthew effect” described by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. And of course the winners from the past tend to be in the right place to make things happen in the future, and have the connections and resources to make good on those opportunities.
But there may be another reason that winners keep winning, a reason that is particularly useful to understand business leadership: Some people tend to be unrealistically optimistic, a view that sometimes makes itself come true.
The downside of such unrealistic optimism is that it can lead you to be out of touch. But the upside is that an unrealistically optimistic outlook might trigger what’s known as a self-fulfilling prophecy (another idea pioneered by Robert K. Merton).
Social psychologists have been talking about these “positive illusions” for years in terms of mental health outcomes (see the work by Shelley Taylor and her colleagues). But when such views trigger the self-fulfilling prophecy, these illusions have the potential to increase chances of success. As my colleague Andy Rachleff argues, winning helps a leader feel confident in future contests, thereby increasing their chances of winning. Many, many people have commented on Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field”; Jobs believed in possibilities even when others saw them as unthinkable. Of course, once he believed, then others would too, making his vision more likely to come true.
Paul Barnett could not accept that he would fail. So in a situation where others would throw up their hands and admit defeat, he kept scrambling. Not letting the facts get in the way, the unrealistic optimist expends effort as if victory was within reach, which of course makes that victory more likely. And with every victory, the optimist’s unrealistic view gets confirmed yet again.
The lesson for leadership is clear. We know that a well-informed decision is one that sees reality for what it is. But leadership is so much more than correct calculation. Especially in uncertain times, what the leader believes to be true may end up so through the self-fulfilling prophecy.
A version of this post originally appeared at www.barnetttalks.com.
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