Leader of the Pack

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We exhort children to always do their best. We ask recruits to be all that they can be. Inevitably this leads to the chant: We are the best of the best of the best, sir! However, sometimes it is better not to be best. Sometimes it is better to be good enough.

Now competition has its place. Sports, for example. Nothing like watching ten runners hurtling down the track trying to be the first across the line. But it’s not exactly real life. Is there a reward for being the first to your desk in the morning? I wouldn’t know — I’ve never done it.

Sometimes being the best is destructive to overall productivity. Those who lag behind — especially if they lag far behind — are not motivated to try harder; they are motivated to give up. Imagine, if you would, a family, say with four children, where mom and dad not only love one best but actually proclaim it out loud. Little Sally is the superior one, we love you all fine but really she’s the best and if we had only had one child she would be the one. I see a lot of family discord and years of therapy ahead.

I remember when I was talking my Chemistry degree. I was a pretty good chemist and would have gotten an Honours degree if I hadn’t switched to Sociology and Political Science (I got a First Class Honours there instead — see how annoying that is). But, for a chemist, I was a great mathematician. So when I took my third year thermodynamics course, I excelled. I was head and shoulders above the other students in the class. The trouble was, it was a small class and the professor — a Scot who believed life should never be easy — would give tests so hard he expected everyone to fail. He would then grade on a curve moving everyone up the requisite distance. Trouble was, everyone did fail except me — I got 80%. Since he wouldn’t give a mark above 90, this created a problem for the other students.

I think they hated me. But, at the time, it wasn’t my problem (I thought). Dr. Grant solved it by giving the other students extra work for bonus points. I’m sure that made them happy.

In any case one of the things I learned when I joined larger organizations where group accomplishments were the most important thing was that leadership did not consist of getting way in front of everyone else and shouting: This way — hurry up you slugs! Rather it consisted of doing well, sometimes better than others (on the right side of the Bell Curve we used to say) and sometimes — often because I, too, have weaknesses — becoming a follower.

I learned this from some great managers who mentored us and pushed us to achieve more but always as a team. And what I discovered, often the leader of the pack is the one sitting right in the middle.

And that’s ten minutes.

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