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Blog // Thoughts
May 11, 2007

Survivorship Bias And The Myth Of Leadership

One of the most important ideas in Fooled By Randomness is the notion of survivorship bias. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “…we tend to mistake one realization among all possible random histories as the most representative one, forgetting that there may be others. In a nutshell, the survivorship bias implies that the highest peforming […]

One of the most important ideas in Fooled By Randomness is the notion of survivorship bias. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it,

“…we tend to mistake one realization among all possible random histories as the most representative one, forgetting that there may be others. In a nutshell, the survivorship bias implies that the highest peforming realization will be the most visible. Why? Because the losers do not show up”

Survivorship Bias explains the way of view of any successful activity is skewed and distorted by the absence of “failures” and by an excessive focus on the biography of the “winners.”

We like to assume that successful people got to where they are because of hard work and the right ideas. But history is replete with examples of highly successful traders, business people, pastors, politicians, military commanders and so on who “blew-up” spectacularly (failed catastrophically), without a radical change in their behavior or philosophy. In reality, they were just lucky fools or high-achieving time-bombs.

The church is alarmingly good at writing out of its history, those who don’t do so well, or fail. In fact, some theologies seems designed to do just that, with a highly pliable doctrine of providence.
A leader fails and it was because of sin, or a change of heart, but not because their method was always faulty, even when they were successful or because the congregation or church executive was sucked in by human charisma masquerading as “leadership.”

One way to potentially overcome the survivorship bias is not to ask, when presented with some model or concept for ministry (or “leadership”), how can I/We do that and be successful too, but rather, how many people have tried this and failed and where are they now?

It seems to me that in the church we almost always fall for the survivorship bias. We judge theological colleges and programmes based on the results of a handful of graduates and not on the struggles of the many. Same goes for youth ministry, being content with a few who go onto a life of service and often ignoring the torrent that grow out of a simplistic and juvenile model of faith. The list is pretty long really…

And it my view it needs to stop along with the dodgy theological justifications that keep it in place. Just because one person flourishes in an approach does not give us permission to ignore the consequences on those were abused or hurt by the same approach. If nothing else, the parable of the lost sheep should teach us that.

[Tags] Taleb, Randomness, Leadership, Survivorship Bias, Providence [/tags]

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