Lightbulbs and CEOs

Imagine that you light a thousand identical lightbulbs, all from the same producer, and leave them on until they burn out. Inevitably, one will last longer than all others, and yet no one could predict which one it would be. Some people think the same is true of executives, including CEOs: luck is the reason a few outperform, and yet they are held up as shining examples for the rest of us.

When I first heard that argument a decade or two ago, my first reaction was to scoff. Of course, we all know that some people are more gifted and motivated than others; I’ve based my career on that premise. But my second, less primitive decision was to study the best research on the topic. Is leadership success based on luck? Or was ...

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