Popularity is Suffocating Talent

Popularity is Suffocating Talent 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I have in the past professed my love of Tim Tebow on this blog.  What I loved about Tebow last year was that he represented a disruption of the status quo and a poke in the eye to “the experts.”  Tebow’s play illustrated that there might be a way to win football games in the NFL that doesn’t fit the formula.  I love that.

But, as Tim Tebow is traded to the Jets this week, I am reminded that Tim Tebow also represents something that I really loathe.  Tebow had become popular in Denver–really, really popular.  And that popularity is largely what gained him the opportunity to be on the field last year to have the opportunity to show his stuff.  And, as he played and won a few games, he became more popular even being given disproportionate credit in wins that he probably deserved.  And his popularity became bigger than his talent.  Don’t get me wrong, Tim Tebow is a talented football player.  You don’t make it to the NFL without being the best of the best.  But, I think even he would admit that he’s far from having mastered the skills of being an elite NFL quarterback.

Tebow’s popularity had literally overwhelmed the Broncos organization.  John Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, couldn’t make a critical comment of Tebow as a team executive without being crucified by the fans.  And, at the end of the day, football is about selling tickets.  So, Elway and the coaching staff seemed to be stuck with Tebow because of his suffocating popularity–not because of his talent or abilities. So, they did the only thing they could.  They went all in on another, better and more proven popular quarterback in Peyton Manning and unloaded Tebow to another team.

Popularity is powerful.  And it can be like a cancer on people and organizations.  I remember the crippling desire for social popularity that started in junior high school.  The need to have the right clothes, say the right things, hang out with the right people.  (If you don’t remember this, that means you were one of the popular kids.  Congrats.)   Thankfully, in absence of coolness I had smarts, so I was popular with the teachers and I’m sure that meant I had a lot of benefits that I didn’t even recognize (for more on this, read Joe Gerstandt’s series of posts on privilege this week–powerful stuff).

The desire for popularity pulls people towards conformity.  It distracts from doing the work that matters.  It makes us ask the question “What will they think” rather than “What’s the right thing to do.”  Sadly, our organizations are hurt daily as popularity rules in management.  To climb the ladder in most organizations means having amassed the popularity to win the support of the “people who matter.”  We see talented and skillful people passed over for promotions all the time because they aren’t popular enough.  Certainly, we know better than to use the word “popular” so we use the terms “exposure” and “visible” and “socialized” but deep down, we know it’s about popularity.

As leaders and as talent cultivators, we’ve got to learn to recognize the difference between talent and popularity and then critically, to put talent before popularity.  If your talent and ability gains you popularity, that’s great.  But, popularity can not be allowed to trump talent when it comes time to make decisions that impact the future of our organizations.  Will we promote the person who is widely liked or will we bet on talent?  Sometimes, you get lucky and someone like Peyton Manning (who is popular and talented) walks through your door, but most of the time it’s one or the other.

Here’s the question: will you have the courage to bet on talent even if it means your own popularity is impacted?

You must.

  • Frank Zupan

    This is a great conversation. I find it notable that "influence" didn't enter your description.

    My experience has been that influence weighs more heavily than popularity in the context of organizational movement/promotion. Further, the ability to influence (seen by most as a positive competency) may be mistaken for popularity in many organizational instances or examples. It seems relatively easy to cloud or confuse the two.

    I really like your descriptions of the negative potential of popularity. I observe this affect more often in social and or entertainment contexts than in organizational situations. Thought provoking post, thanks for sharing it.

  • Jason Lauritsen

    Thanks for this, Frank. Influence is definitely a great concept to include in this discussion. Influence can definitely be impacted by popularity but that's not always a good thing. Paris Hilton has tremendous influence that comes from popularity and I'd certainly argue that her influence is not a good thing for society, generally. I've seen a lot of people who were promoted because they were well liked. They certainly had influence because of their popularity, but they lacked the talent and capabilities to do execute their job as needed. So, they leverage their popularity and influence to mask their incompetence. Thanks for the prodding. I'll have to think more on this.

  • Charlie Judy

    yes. popularity can also amount to smoke and mirrors. take the rainmaker who can make clients go ga ga, generates tens of millions of dollars each year in business, but chews up his people who are doing projects for him along the way. that's really interesting…for a while. but is it sustainable? does it scale?

  • Jennifer Payne

    Frank, I think you nailed what I was trying to get my mind to grasp about this. I think it is important to make a distinction between popularity and influence, relationship building skills, and even political savvy. Like it or not, influence, relationships, and political savvy are important skills as a person moves up within an organization. It's a problem if leaders make decisions based on the popularity of the decision or outcome; however, there is a need to understand the unwritten rules of a company's culture and the undertones of accepted practices. And sometimes a person gains "popularity" based on influence and great relationship-building skills.

    That all being said, I do agree that talent must underscore everything. I'm just not entirely certain that talent alone is enough if that person doesn't know how to showcase and share their talents. And there's the flip side too: the ultra talented employee who wreaks havoc on culture and morale in much the same way that Charlie referenced above.

    Excellent post Jason. You really got me thinking about thinking about this topic.

  • Seth McColley

    What a great post, Jason. This one really hit home for me as I recently left an organization and culture that, in my opinion, was more interested in style over substance. I'm talking about an organization in which the term, "Pepsi Pretty" is still alive and well. I saw, firsthand, how decisions were made to promote, prop up, highlight, and feature sub-par employees who looked right, talked right, shopped right, etc. over employees who were more competent, more qualified and more talented. It was sickening and disheartening. Reminds of something I once heard, "People say that college is a lot like the real world. That's not true at all. The real world is a lot more like high school."

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Jason Lauritsen