In the epilogue to the book, Sutton talks about Steve Jobs and differing perspectives on what contributed to his success; creativity, assholery, or some magic combination of both. Pondering this made me think of a story from my own life.
Isn't it Amazing?
It was 1988. I was wasting time in my dorm room when a friend came in excitedly waving a cassette tape (I said it was 1988).
"You have to listen to this", he said. "It will change your life."
The tape was an introduction to Neurolinguistic Programming narrated by Anthony Robbins. In the 30 minute tape, Tony talked about "anchoring", a phenomenon where our brains create associations that trigger emotional responses.
Imagine every day as you drive home, you encounter a traffic jam one quarter mile from the same exit. You repeatedly find yourself anxious and frustrated. Then, one weekend, while driving the same route in essentially no traffic, you find yourself inexplicably anxious and frustrated.
In short, that's anchoring. You've developed an emotional response to a completely unassociated trigger. Seeing that stretch of highway makes you anxious.
By the way. I don't know what I'm talking about.
Now before you faithful practitioners point out the egregious flaws in my pedestrian description of NLP and anchoring, please allow me to openly admit I don't know this stuff intimately and the details of neither NLP nor anchoring are essential to this story.
Back to the story
The tape goes on to explain how you could practice this on a friend. Select a friend and every time the two of you are together and laughing heartily, touch your friend's elbow ('cause that's not creepy). After only a few instances of this, you should be able to randomly touch your friend's elbow and elevate their mood.
The tape then goes on in fairly significant detail about how you can take advantage of this phenomenon to overcome your own personal shortcomings. Afraid of public speaking? Use anchoring to trigger a sense of confidence in yourself by pinching your forearm. Lack motivation? Flick your earlobe. Need a little pick me up in the afternoon? Puncture your thigh with a dull scissors.
You get the idea.
I was intrigued by what I heard and was already imagining the potential power of the secret revealed to me. I returned the tape to my friend, excited to discuss the personal shortcomings I was ready to address using this technique; I was going to re-program me into a better version!
"So what did you think?", he asked.
"Pretty cool.", I said, "I can't wait to use it!"
"I know!", he responded quite enthusiastically, "Isn't it Amazing? You can totally screw with people!"
Maybe it's about you
The point of the story is that two people listened to the exact same tape. Same words. Same intonation. Same day. Same ambient temperature. Two completely different take aways.
By the same token, it seems plausible to me that the attributes we point out as differentiators for a "great" leader have more to do with the observer than the observed.