During WWII, Allied bomber losses were high, so high that the British Air Ministry undertook a rigorous analysis in hopes of finding a solution. Their engineers set out to eyeball every bomber they could, gathering data on each bullet hole. After analyzing the results, engineers decided to reinforce the areas that had the highest concentrations of holes with armor plating.
It didn’t work.
Perplexed, the engineers assumed that the extra plating had made the planes too heavy and that the difficulty in handling the planes was offsetting the protection of the armor plating.
Enter Abraham Wald.
Wald, a mathematician, suggested simply that they put extra armor plating where the bullet holes weren’t. The idea was simple: if the planes are returning with bullet holes, obviously those areas can be struck without causing the planes to crash. The planes that aren’t returning, Wald theorized, are the ones that are getting hit in different areas. This idea was so significant that statisticians decided to name it: survivorship bias (the tendency to include only successes in statistical analysis). Any time you only examine the successes, you will skew the results.
If we return to the airport bookstore of our minds, we see the shelves littered with survivorship bias. We love reading about successes. That’s why books by celebrity CEOs and leadership gurus are among the best sellers of any list. We’d much rather read about the brilliant company leader who started working out of his garage and ended up dominating the industry. However, when this is all we consume about leadership, we succumb to survivorship bias. While a celebrity CEO may reveal the 7 secrets he used to climb to the top, how are we to know it works in every situation?
This is where theory comes in.
Leadership and organizational theories are constructed and tested by examining not just the successes but also the failures. Good and bad leaders, successful and failing change efforts, all get included in the analysis and the resulting theories spare us from our survivorship bias. If we want to grow into outstanding leaders, we must know how and when to utilize the knowledge provided by the existing body of leadership research.
Good leaders focus on where the bullet holes are, Great leaders consider where they aren’t.
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