Guest Post: Geoff Colvin’s new take on talent

Everybody’s talking about how to find opportunity in the current economic chaos, but here’s an angle that I think is being overlooked: Times of crisis present genuinely great opportunities to develop leadership. Now I didn’t say to demonstrate leadership; that opportunity is obvious. I’m talking about building leadership capabilities beyond what you or others in your organization possess now. I realize it’s difficult to be happy about tough times, but this opportunity is so large that it’s almost worth being grateful for.

Here’s what I mean. Scientific research on great performance has shown persuasively that high abilities of all kinds are developed. T

hey don’t occur naturally. The question of whether great leaders are born or made is settled: They’re made. I found this research so fascinating and important that I’ve written a new book about it, called Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else.

The key to this development is pushing people – or people pushing themselves – just beyond their current abilities, forcing them to do things that they can’t quite do. Companies that are famous for developing leaders–PepsiCo , Procter & Gamble , General Electric –are continually moving managers into jobs that accomplish exactly that. But the process is slow and can accommodate only so many people at any time.

The great thing about a financial crisis and a recession – and I mean this quite seriously – is that they offer everyone the opportunity to be stretched in their current jobs. Such CEOs as A.G. Lafley of P&G and Jeff Immelt of GE have told me that being forced to manage through crises earlier in their careers built their abilities so much that it was critical to their becoming CEOs—and that, in fact, they wouldn’t have become CEOs otherwise.

Certain practices can make the experience especially productive. Coaching helps. Getting specific in your own mind about exactly which abilities you want to improve, and how, will turbocharge the results. But the main thing is continually trying things you can’t quite do. This is what makes you better. And doing it for a long time is what makes you great.

And now, thanks to a bunch of subprime mortgages, you’re being handed a great big chance to get a whole lot better. Please grab it. You will, truly, be a better performer as a result.

Geoff Colvin is a senior editor at large at Fortune and author of the just-released Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else.

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