Please trash the talent agenda

When I was a school teacher the 1990s I was offended by the idea of identifying some students as ‘Gifted and Talented’. It seemed deeply troubling to me that some pupils, who had been labelled thus, were given extra support in order to maximise skills, attitudes and abilities that they had demonstrated in the classroom, music practise room or on the sports field. It was a form of apartheid. It was elitist and more importantly to me, it seemed to suggest that everyone else was not Gifted or Talented. My feelings about the ‘Talent’ agenda in the workplace are no less strong. 


Nature vs nurture

I hope that as you read these blog posts and watch our YouTube/Vimeo channels on leadership, you recognise that I am a realist rather than an idealist. I’m pretty pragmatic and recognise the real world of work with all its pressures, short-cuts and work arounds. I get it. 

In a similar way, I tend to view human beings as a beautiful, infinite range of subtlety and nuance. People are rarely wholly one thing or another. As a result, I’m the first to acknowledge that people are born with some areas of their life that they perform better at than others. Leaders also have some strengths that they seem to have been blessed with. Some leaders seem to have an innate ability to connect with people; some may be able to recognise important strategic elements of their field; others will be better able to analyse and forecast based on numbers and data. It is possible that the majority of such abilities were genetic and therefore can to some extent be considered innate talents. 

Incredibly, recent research has suggested there is a genetic link to leadership. The evidence shows that ‘leadership role occupancy’ is associated with rs4950, a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP). This is the first study to identify a specific genotype associated with the tendency to occupy a leadership position. However, and here is the clincher for me, the results suggest that what determines whether an individual occupies a leadership position is “the complex product of genetic and environmental influences” (De Neve, Mikhaylov, Dawes, Christakis, & Fowler, 2013). No surprises there. You may be genetically gifted for leadership but there are all sorts of environmental reasons that may prevent you becoming a leader, let alone a ‘talented’ leader. Being naturally talented is no guarantee of success. 

If not Nature, then what? 

The flip side of the nature-talent argument is that there is much greater opportunity to succeed in an organisational context.with the right drive and work-ethic. If you are fully engaged at work and willing to apply yourself consistently then you are going to be in the successful minority. Just turning up everyday and putting in a decent shift separates you from the majority. Indeed, if you are fully engaged in work you will be in the top 30% of workers according to the latest Gallup Survey figures (Gallup, June 2016). Being willing to step up into a leadership position, to focus on learning how to lead and how to get the best from other human beings will result in your being one of a very small group. 

For me ‘talent’ is something you earn through application rather than something you are blessed with. It takes high levels of effort over extended periods - in fact, over your whole working life. However, being identified as leadership ‘talent’ is much more likely to be the result of hard work than genetic code. 

Importance of Nurture for leaders


The ultimate reason I would urge you to view talent as something that is earned rather than an accident of birth, is how taking such a position positively affects your view of the capacity of people to grow and develop. If you fall firmly into the nature camp then you may feel people cannot change. You may consider that it is impossible for you as a leader to help people in your team improve their skills and their performance. I can assure you that starting from a position where you feel people are able to achieve almost anything is far more liberating for you as a leader and helpful for those you lead. High performing teams tend to be led by leaders that know that hard work, appropriate support and an aspirational culture is a positive environment for ensuring high performance. Setting clear expectations and providing opportunities for people to develop skills and attitudes key for success is a way to ensure that as a leader you are tapping into the almost limitless capability of human beings to become talented performers. 

Performance Edge helps develop and coach leaders to excellence. If you would like help developing your leadership bench then please contact us here

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John Lewis
Little Hearts Matter