What Makes Great Leaders? Nature vs Nurture
As the natural potential for leadership success is inherent in every person, that means the essential traits for effective leadership are naturally within people who seek leadership careers. So, there’s no cause to question whether an individual naturally has “what it takes” to lead effectively. The answer can be found in another question, “What does the individual need to further develop, in order to lead effectively?”
So, the way to have a great leader at the head of an organisation is not through identifying one that has been bred as such. It’s through identifying leadership deficiencies in an individual’s particular profile of leadership qualities and employing developmental principles and practices to strengthen leadership performance in those areas.
Leadership Talent is Not Present at Birth
It still may intuitively seem that it only makes sense to believe that leadership success is for the few, the natural-born leaders. However, though leadership is indeed, a uniquely high plane of human functionality, the rarefied air in which great leaders operate is at a level of personal excellence reached by experience and disciplined cultivation of talent, not by genetics.
Traits assumed to have brought one into the world ready-made for leadership may include inherited features such as genetic contributors to physical height or beauty. Exhibiting personality traits early on, like extroversion, or test scoring during youth as having high raw intelligence, perhaps and others may seem to drive the future of an individual toward leadership success. However, such assumptions don’t track with our own observations of the outcomes of lives of individuals around us, in our businesses, schools, communities, and families.
We find all the most apparent qualities of leaders existing even in the least aspirational among us. On the other hand, we also find the most unassuming, hesitant personalities rising to even the most prominent of inspirational leadership roles. Leadership is what happens when even the quietest, most private individual, least desirous of acclaim — even the least interested in leading — becomes impassioned by a mission and begins to cultivate the skills to realise goals to achieve it.
The Myth of the Magnetic Natural Leader
As far as any irresistible sense of magnetism that the society may experience, drawing numbers of people toward people with “natural” charisma, we can see that the proof of the indifference of society toward exciting personality types, as a class, is very clear.
On the face of it, the ineffectualness of merely having an over-sized persona, clever wit, strong sociability, persuasive talent, or strong self-confidence, among other such exceptional characteristics is proven, again, in the outcomes of lives we witness being lived out around us.
The Economist offers an updated perspective on over-confidence in one’s abilities, citing a study finding that men over-estimate their skills by an average of 30%, and women by 15%, leading to many people ascending to leadership, without the actual developed skills necessary for success.
Individuals who are strong in such classically presumed leadership traits as those mentioned above, but who don’t progress along a subject knowledge and leadership skills development path that is conducive to their ultimate success are unable to sustain leadership simply by the force of their personalities.
In fact, hordes of people with multiple such strong qualities go off to live lives of obscurity, with no one following their lead, as others displaying fewer of those spectacular qualities advance to national or global leadership roles of the highest achievement in their adopted fields.
Leadership Ability is Developed
Like the personality features mentioned above, additional traits that might or might not help carry an individual through to a successful leadership role include both those that all people are born with and those that are introduced through experience and cultivated in those who ultimately become great leaders.
Fortune magazine’s discussion (2009) of unorthodox approaches to leadership development used by IBM and other corporate trailblazers are still too often not understood by less forward-thinking competitors. The article illustrates these industry giants’ awakening to principles of cultivating more in individuals who are on their upper management track than just communications skills and job-specific skills. The companies expose their leadership aspirants to broader life experience as part of their upper management level human resources development program.
In the first of those two categories of properties, true leadership traits people can be born with, there is actually just one — curiosity. The second category, experientially acquired and cultivated properties of good leaders, includes characteristics that are all built out in one way or another from that core capacity of curiosity. These include traits such as:
- Acquired passion for a field of knowledge
- Strong desire to help others
- Formal or informal education in an area of interest
- Compelling delivery of ideas (though not necessarily in the form of exceptionally articulate speech)
- Deep belief in a proposition
Fundamental Actions of Leaders
Activities at the most basic level executed by leaders are mostly associated with the same essential communications skills and other social skills that people normally develop throughout childhood and continue to improve throughout adulthood. These include actions such as:
- Articulating ideas
- Acquiring information
- Stating facts, reporting information
- Problem solving (critical reasoning)
- Conveying a sense of urgency
- Measuring speech (self-editing)
- Sustaining interactions
- Decision making
- Perceiving and interpreting verbal and non-verbal cues
- Analysing and responding to others’ positions and reactions
- Pursuing objectives and goals
- Attempting to persuade
- Other communications and learning skills
Leadership Development Strategies
Some of the above mentioned traits are stronger or weaker from one leadership candidate to another. The strength of a program to develop leaders is in its effectiveness in determining which properties of successful leaders in the given field are key to their success and applying the necessary leadership training and, when ready, executive coaching processes. The Harvard Business Review offers some helpful thoughts on readiness for advanced learning in leadership.
To be optimally effective, those developmental processes must be based on the particular type(s) and extent of development needs, in order to expand and balance the leader’s repertoire of specific skills and abilities.
There are developmental strategies for building abilities in these areas mentioned and for intuiting practical developmental methods. For example, there are learning approaches for a leader who is having difficulty in persuasiveness or in conveying urgency, including methods such as:
- Observing others
- Exaggerated dramatisation
- Role playing
- Side-by-side real-time guidance
- Other skills cultivation methods
Advice for Aspiring Leaders
Leadership skills are learned. The will/discipline to continue learning and practicing and the perspective and courage to continue striving after setbacks and failures, are the most important and productive of character traits that must be cultivated as foundational leadership qualities. Those must then be brought to bear on shaping more advanced leadership skills. Life experience, with the addition of effective methods to help aspiring leaders build core leadership competencies are the structural components of skills in great managers.
The important message for the aspiring leader to take away here is that good leaders are not born, they’re built. If you believe in something, and if you have a strong desire to lead, in order to realise your vision for it, then success is within your reach. Your developmental roadmap must lead through immersing yourself in:
- Knowledge-building activities
- Communications skill-building
- Organisational management training
- Coaching in leadership methods and techniques
- Any other areas of leadership skills development you may need in order to strengthen your weak areas of leadership competency
Don’t worry as much about lacking self-confidence or courage to lead. The intellectual authority that comes with building superior knowledge in a field promotes the necessary confidence to share knowledge at that level. The desire to use it to help others promotes the courage needed to share your knowledge in a way that lends to leading others to learn it and use it.
That’s what doing business looks like at the organisational leadership level. It’s what pursuing any endeavour looks like at the level of motivating other people to accomplish purposes and achieve goals. This principle applies to a homemaker leading a family household, a teacher leading a class, a captain leading a sports team, or a CEO leading a multinational.
Success in leadership comes through having one’s interest captured in a particular field of pursuit (an academic subject, a sport, business management, a particular product, a charitable cause, etc.), making oneself an expert in his or her area of knowledge, and acquiring and coalescing the particular leadership skills necessary to motivate people who are also inclined to be engaged in the pursuit of the kind of goal you want to achieve.