Why you should stand stats and poll results on their heads

One way of making sense of polls and statistics is to stand them on their heads – which is why recent high-profile research on early leadership indicators could be misleading.

One way of putting statistics, or what passes for them, into perspective is to reverse them.

This works especially well when figures quoted in some story or theory are less than 50%. For example, Labour won a thumping victory at the last election with 36% of votes cast, which of course means that 64% of those who bothered to vote did so for some party other than Labour. I don’t recall any headlines saying that most voters cast their votes against Blair, only that it was another great victory for Tonyand his crew.

In fact, the ‘couldn’t be bothered to vote’ party scooped the 2005 polls with more than 40% of the votes cast, or rather not cast.

This brings me to a recent poll on leadership, carried out by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), which purported to show that today’s business leaders -gawd bless ’em -exhibited leadership qualities at an early age. And we’re not talking bullying or snitching.

The ILM found that of the 500 leaders and managers it polled 44% had been school prefects, 16% were in a choir, 9% were head boy or girl, 34% of male leaders were Boy Scouts, and42% of female leaders polled were Girl Guides. So if a candidate for a leadership post can hand out pencils, tie a knot, sing Ave Maria and hand out a detention slip, then you can be pretty sure you’re on to a winner.

Of course, what this poll – picked up widely by the UK media and repeated verbatim -really tells us is that most of today’s business leaders showed no signs whatsoever when they were young that they were destined for leadership. Some 56% weren’t school prefects, 84% weren’t in a choir, and 66% of males were not in theScouts.

Perhaps more telling is that a significant minority – one-third – of those asked said academic performance was the most overrated indicator of a good leader. These probably also comprised the one-third of respondents who never went into higher education.

Tree’s company

A couple of issues ago, I mentioned that training venue providers were locked in a kind of arms race as they strive to go one better than each other. That month it was brain food, and this month it is tree houses.

De Vere Venues claims to be the first venue specialist in the country to have built a tree house at a training venue.

In this case it’s Theobald’s Park in Hertfordshire, and it’s not the sort of planks-nailed-together-death-trap that devoted dads erect in suburban gardens at the weekend. This one is 23-metres square, and features internet access, power sockets, and low-level seating.

Apparently, being half way up a tree encourages creativity and inspiration. Maybe that’s where Sir Isaac Newton went wrong. Just think what he might have come up with -other than the universal theory of gravitation, obviously -had he been perched up a tree rather than sitting under one.

Point blank

University of South Wales professor John Sweller stuck a dagger in the hearts of all trainers and presenters recently with the publication of research showing that PowerPoint presentations were useless, or not even that good.

Histeam of researchers claim to have found that the human brain is unable to process information from two different sources simultaneously and switches off automatically. Apparently, the brainprocesses and retains more information if it is digested in either verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.

This is part of professor Sweller’s cognitive load theory. Some trainers might describe it as a load of b******s theory.

John Charlton, editor and training manager

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