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Transference Bias: A Tale of Bloody Wars, Baby Kings, and Bad Bosses

December 6, 2013

 

 

There was a time, and it was not so long ago, that conventional wisdom said if you were born into nobility, you possessed a set of superior traits that automatically qualified you for governance. Got royal parents? Congratulations, you've won the leadership lottery.

 

There was just one problem: the system often produced people uniquely unqualified to rule.

 

Consider Charles II of Spain. He came from a line of the Spanish Hapsburgs so intermarried that one ancestor appears on his family tree in 14 separate places. Charles took the throne in 1665 despite a host of physical and mental disabilities—he couldn't chew, drooled frequently, was never really educated, and at one point it's rumored he ordered his deceased family members dug up so he could look at them.

 

Consider King George IV of England, famous for his extravagant spending, love of leisure—and utterly selfish, irresponsible behavior.

 

Consider the many kings and queens who were handed the reigns to their country before they were old enough to put their own pants on.

 

Now consider: many of these people held the fate of nations in their hands.

 

A history pockmarked with unnecessary wars, massive public debts, and plain incompetence proves it out: leadership is not an inherited trait. Wisdom and judgement are gained through experience, not via bloodline.

 

These days, most surviving monarchs are more figurehead than supreme ruler. After all, the industrial revolution has ushered in modern times and modern thinking. Or has it?

 

Anyone working in business might guess where this is headed. Transference bias at its core presupposes that knowledge is not a requirement for climbing the ranks of leadership. ("If Jones displayed a hardworking can-do attitude over in sales, by golly he can certainly run the finance department!")

 

Today, "character, positivity, and fortitude" are the new blue blood in business.

 

Not that these traits aren't good things for a leader to have. Most certainly they are. But when it comes time to make hard choices, the sunniest attitude in the world is no substitute for expertise. It's the same way that Count Chocula’s noble birth doesn’t guarantee him wisdom in the deployment of his infantry.

 

Unfortunately, transference bias never died, merely dressed itself in new clothes. And like the old kingdoms at war, there is much collateral damage.

 

So the next time your new boss shows up green behind the ears, fresh from some other unrelated department, remember it could be worse. Your cubicle could be a castle wall, facing a catapult attack of dead rotting cows. And if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that nothing is worse than dead rotting cows. Except for maybe the new minty-fresh boss you’re about to train…

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