Competence vs the Lifting Power of Bovine Excrement

BS makes you a leader even if you know nothing.

There's an old wives' tale about a turkey who was wandering around the pasture and saw a crow sitting at the top of a tree.  "How can I get up there?" the turkey asked.

"Takes a lot of energy to get this high," the crow said.  "You see those piles of manure?  There's lots of energy in that stuff.  You eat enough, you'll have what it takes to make it to the top."

This didn't sound appealing, but the turkey really wanted to get to the top so he started nibbling.  Sure enough, the first day, he could hop up to the lower branches of the tree.  Encouraged by his progress, he nibbled more and more.  Each day he hopped further and further up the tree.

Finally, after an especially heavy dose and much flapping and puffing, the turkey stood at the very top.  A farmer saw him and shot him for dinner.

Moral: BS may get you to the top but it can't keep you there.

Some Old Wives Were Pretty Smart

Modern folk tend to sneer at "old wives' tales," but studies show that many of them, such as grandma fixing you chicken soup when you have a cold, turn out to be true.  In an article "Why Inept People Become the Boss," Netscape Money and Business reports scientific research that proves that BS can indeed take you to the top.  When your grandma warned you about smooth-talking BS artists, she was right all along!

The research was carried out at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business.  The bottom line is:

People with dominant personalities are perceived by others as being more competent--even if their actual skills don't measure up. [emphasis added]

The researchers divided 68 students into 17 same-gender teams of 4 each.  They asked each team to design a non-profit environmental organization; the winning team would receive a $400 prize.  Team members were required to rate each other on influence in the group and on overall competence.  The results wouldn't surprise your BS-averse grandma:

Team members with the most dominant personalities were rated the highest for such qualities as general intelligence, dependability and self-discipline.  At the same time, the students perceived the less outspoken workers as having less desirable traits, giving them high scores for being conventional and uncreative.

This was interesting but not definitive.  It was possible that people who were the most talkative were in fact the most intelligent and the most creative.

Could it be that your grandma was wrong?  Could it be that being talkative goes with intelligence, competence, and all the rest?  Could it be that someone who's smart enough to sling BS is smart enough to make it all come true?

In order to check for that possibility, the researchers later asked the teams to solve problems from the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT).  When it was time to give answers for the teams, the people who spoke up the most were chosen to be group leaders.

It didn't matter if the chosen leaders got the right answers, only that they made more suggestions.  The ones who answered for the group were the ones who talked the most, not the ones with the right answers.

Team performance depended on whether the chosen leader presented the work of the smartest team members or his own.  If the leader was smart enough to listen to his competent team members, they did well, if not, they lost.

Your grandma was right - studies show that the gift of gab can take an unskilled person a long way.

We've recently seen how a talent for speaking eloquently about nothing much can lead to the very top.  Phase two of that experiment, of course, will determine whether it's possible to stay on top on the same basis.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments
I know this isn't the real thrust of your argument, however, to be a leader it is essential to have the ability to articulate well, to be able to listen, and to be forceful enough to get people to listen to you.

People don't really need to know anything, they just have to be able and willing to rely on those beneath them if they don't and hopefully learn as they go.

The problem is, most bosses are pointy haired bosses. Most bosses don't know anything and don't care to learn, but insist upon making their own decisions so as to not appear weak. Leading, of course, to terrible decisions and unhappy employees.
May 19, 2009 9:56 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...