It turns out that today's leaders are smart, talented and lucky. That last factor, luck, is what separates successful individuals from everyone else, according to the researchers. It's also why we can't look back on history's winners, follow their path and achieve the same results.
"Humans... often rely on the heuristic of learning from the most successful," said Chengwei Liu, an assistant strategy and behavioral science professor at Warwick Business School. "Our research found that even though observers were given clear feedback and incentives to be accurate in their judgment of performers, 58 percent of them still assumed the most successful were the most skilled when they are clearly not, mistaking luck for skill. This assumption is likely [to] lead to disappointment -- even if you can imitate everything Bill Gates did, you will not be able to replicate his initial fortune. This also implies that rewarding the highest performers can be detrimental or even dangerous because imitators are unlikely to achieve exceptional performance without luck unless they take excessive risk or cheat, which may partly explain the recurrent financial crises and scandals."
Who should we study instead? Individuals who are lower in the pecking order, as Adrian Gaskell of the Chartered Management Institute notes. Such individuals' achievements are more closely tied to their actions and efforts, as they didn't have the benefit of luck or supportive circumstances found with the higher-ups.
More From Payscale
Can a Boss-Free Office Boost Employee Engagement?
These Industries Have More Jobs Than Applicants
Crave Success? Don't Start a Business With Your Friends
(Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos/Flickr)