Fame from misfortune

November 14, 1997

Jeffrey Archer and Arthur Scargill do have something in common - they both lost a parent during childhood. Cary Cooper explores the link between early loss and later success.

We have always been fascinated by what makes someone successful or extraordinary. As early as the 5th century bc, Plato described his "philosopher king" as a rare individual, possessing superior abilities, as befits a "man of gold". In The Republic, he opened the debate as to whether leaders are born or created, a debate which is still energetically carried on today. Francis Galton, in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, tried to demonstrate the linkages among persons of outstanding achievements in several fields. Even Max Weber wrote at the end of the 19th century about "charismatic authority".

In 1904 Havelock Ellis carried out the first empirical study of "British men of genius", highlighting personality and early childhood experiences, men "who showed very little psychosis. Although minor nervous disorders and poor health in childhood were rather frequent". Godwin in his classic 1915 book, The Executive and His Control of Men, differentiated between "thinkers" and "doers". Successful executives were taller and heavier than the people they controlled, as were "doers" as opposed to "thinkers".

In contrast environmentalists, such as Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer, asserted that it was the Zeitgeist or the situation rather than the personality of a specific individual which determined social change. These commentators argued that "the leader" was simply an expression of the needs of his time. According to this school of thought, man's power to change situations is limited, if not illusory.

Social scientists are now beginning to systematically explore the driving forces in the lives of extraordinary or successful people in an effort to understand their psychological background. A recent book by American psychologist Howard Gardner, for example, categorises successful people into four types, based on their "domains" of expertise and motivations. The first type is termed "extraordinary minds", and described as those "who gain complete mastery over one or more domains of accomplishment". The "maker" type, on the other hand, is primarily known for "creating a new domain". Examples of makers, according to Gardner, are Sigmund Freud who created psychoanalysis, Charles Darwin, creator of the evolutionary study of biology, and even someone like Charlie Chaplin, who made cinemagraphic history. The third type is the "introspector", who may have mastered a particular field but whose primary concern "is an exploration of his or her inner life". Many literary figures fall into this category. And finally, Gardner identifies the "influencer" whose primary motivation in life is to influence others - people such as Karl Marx and Machiavelli.

Gardner went on to provide four case studies of each type; Mozart as master, Freud as maker, Virginia Woolf as introspector, and Gandhi as influencer. He explored the roots of their distinction, from Mozart's difficult relationship with his father, to Freud's close relationship with his mother and his Jewishness, to the teenage Woolf's maternal loss to Gandhi's guilt about leaving his father's deathbed to be with his bride.

Although research reveals many characteristics linked to extraordinary achievement, attention has inevitably focused on early childhood. It has become something of a cliche to attribute adult problems to adverse childhood experiences, yet research is now revealing a possible link between separation and rejection in early childhood and later success. Indeed, in the mid-1960s Illingworth and Illingworth in their book Lessons from Childhood asserted that "a surprisingly large number of children destined for fame lost one or both parents in childhood", listing examples such as Michelangelo, Ivan the Terrible and Isaac Newton. Peter Hingley and myself, in our book The Change Makers, identified a number of national figures (the likes of Arthur Scargill, Lord Weinstock, Richard Ingrams, John Harvey-Jones, Jeremy Isaacs and Peter Parker) and found that many had experienced loss or separation in respect of parents during childhood. Richard Ingrams lost a father at 14, both of Lord Weinstock's parents died when he was young, Lord (Len) Murray lost both parents before the age of nine, Arthur Scargill lost his mother in his late teens, and the list goes on. We felt it was significant that many of those interviewed stressed the importance of childhood experiences. Memories of loss, whether of parents or place, and associated feelings of insecurity, were recalled vividly by many and were held to be a key factor in their development.

This study was repeated in the 1990s by Reg Jennings, Charles Cox and myself in Business Elites, with nearly 40 of Britain's top entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs (Lord Archer, Sir Mark Weinberg, Sir Nigel Broackes, Eddy ShahI). It was found that nearly 37 per cent of the entrepreneurs (in contrast to the intrapreneurs) had lost a parent in childhood and another 58 per cent had a parent absent in childhood. The key theme that emerged from their experiences was one of insecurity and loss. In the dependency of their childhood, they suffered because they were victims of circumstances beyond their control. Frequently parents either disappeared or reappeared, even "stability of place" was lost through family mobility or, in the case of older cohorts, due to war-time evacuation. The resultant emotional state was often one of anger - at the pain caused and at their own helplessness.

Perhaps for a number of successful individuals, these early negative life experiences have led to a need to regain control of their environment, a process which in itself may bring that psychological security they lacked in childhood. Psychologists may see these early adverse experiences as likely to be traumatic, literally "wounding" to the developing personality. Yet, as the physical wound produces healthy scar tissue often stronger than normal to protect the damaged area, so the personality may protect itself by defending vulnerable aspects of the psyche through a number of defence mechanisms. Certainly, several of these successful people reported feelings of strength through adversity, with their early personal trauma leading them to successfully test out survival skills. This, in turn, led to feelings of personal independence which some found useful in their later careers. In many of the "change makers" it was also found that childhood and adolescence was marked by few close friends. Perhaps even at this stage of their life, their earlier experiences produced an ambivalence towards trust which resulted in a partially enforced isolation, encouraging an even greater independence.

There are a number of other factors that research indicates contribute to successful or extraordinary people; intelligence, natural talent, energy levels, charismatic qualities, the ability to communicate - but for many the underlying driving force must stem from a deeper motivation. This may be an attempt to gain control of a world they were unable to control as a child, or to enhance a vulnerable or negative self image. It is not merely about being in the right place at the right time.

The extraordinary in our society also seem to have gained a resilience to catastrophic failure. In our study of "business elites", the likes of Lord Archer, George Davies (formerly of Next), Gerald Ronson and Lord Young experienced at some point in their careers a substantial business problem, yet their ability to recover from adversity is a characteristic frequently found in successful people. George Bernard Shaw described such individuals perfectly in Mrs Warren's Profession: "People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them."

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology at The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

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