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Can people change? Can you?

There’s a fight going on at the moment in leadership theory. It’s a quiet one. You might not have noticed it.

On one side are the determinists, who say we are hardwired from birth and can’t change – Robert Hogan and Marcus Buckingham, for example. “We all love tales of personal transformation,” says Buckingham. “But, in truth, we don’t change as we grow older. We just become more of who we already are.”

On the other side is the personal change lobby: Stephen Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), Anthony Robbins (the ‘change yourself and change your life’ guru) and the canon of personal improvement books that just grows and grows. You can throw in the Neuro-Linguistic Programmers, probably, on this side of the scale.

Who you are is just an accumulation of how you behave. If you don’t like who you are, act differently and become someone better, is the rallying call on this side. Personality, for the personal change gurus, is something to be bent to your will.

I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago to the UK’s Northern Leadership Forum that brought these two sides clashing together, which wasn’t my intention. The subject I was asked to talk on was how great leaders behave.

The group had spent some time in the morning studying Robert Hogan’s work on how personality drives what we do. Hogan is the psychologist behind the Hogan Assessment Systems that are grounded in the assumption that the primary driver of behaviour is personality. I argued in the afternoon that it (personality) is not the primary driver of how we behave; at least not to the extent Hogan claims.

I was heckled a lot by a Hogan fan. A bit cultlike some of these Hoganites.

The assumption that some people are hardwired to lead just doesn’t stand up for me, and is a lingering whiff of the old ‘great man’ school of leadership. I find the idea of ‘acts of leadership throughout the system’ as being where leadership lives, as Max Weber put it sixty years ago, far more compelling than the usual notion that leadership lives in select individuals labelled ‘leaders’.

The former is an idea whose time has come, it seems to me. And as for ‘can people change?’ I’m with George Eliot:

“It’s never too late to be the person you could have been.”

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