So You Want to be a Leader?

Are people born natural leaders or are leaders self-made? Until this week, I always thought the former; that some people were just naturally good at it. They had this quality I could never put my finger on, but I could recognize an influential leader. Professor Barry Posner tested my view point at The Leadership Challenge in Chicago where he walked through his research, and basis for both his new book and course at Santa Clara University. Barry’s challenge started with this:

Think of a Manager that you work with. Ok…got one? Now think of a leader that you work with. Did you think of the same person in both cases? If not, why?

By definition, a Manager is someone that holds on, while a leader is someone that let’s go. If we reflect on successful companies that we’re familiar with – Apple, Google, Facebook for example, it’s easy to see that progress happens when people are ready to let go of how the old way of doing things and try something they haven’t before. In looking up those definitions I noticed that the word “leader” is not even capitalized in the dictionary while Manager is. Manager is a title, but what does it mean to be a leader?

Over the years, Barry has conducted research where he’s asked several hundred people to talk about a time when they’ve been at their best as a leader. He found that while each individual had a unique story, a majority of the participants identified the same behaviors. This is really interesting because it suggests that leadership is a skill that can be emulated, and therefore should mean that everyone has the capability of being a leader.

Barry took the majority pool of answers and boiled them down into five key practices:

  1. Model the way: Clarify your values and set the example for others. Do I make decisions linked to my values? Do I go first? How do I respond when stuff* hits that metaphorical fan?
  2. Inspire a shared vision: Envision a future of existing possibilities and enlist others to share in that vision. Leaders provide guided autonomy, so what direction have I given my team? If emotions are contagious, what vibes am I putting out?
  3. Challenge the process: Look beyond your job and challenge the status quo. There is a saying that, “No great idea ever enters the mind through an open mouth.” Listen, be curious, and support risk taking.
  4. Enable others to act: Foster collaboration and enable others to act on it. You can’t lead a team without a team to lead, and the critical success to that is relationships. Does my team understand the bigger picture? Do I ask, “What do you need from me to rock at what you’re doing?”
  5. Encourage the heart: Recognize contributors and celebrate victories. If you can’t recognize team members for something specific, then you aren’t paying attention – and good leaders pay attention.

So, are leaders born or bred?

Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Leadership might be a capability that everyone has the power to possess, but I think the secret sauce lies in whether or not the person wants to be a leader.

I agree with Barry that there is learning in leadership. Having a strong mentor to provide coaching and an environment where you can practice your skills allows us to continue to reflect on and improve ourselves. But a leader is only a leader if they have followers. Gaining followers requires a clear vision, passion, initiative and creativity not only in how you execute your work but also in how you enable others to do theirs with the same fortitude.

If you’re curious to learn more about Barry and his Leadership Challenge, check out his program and his book here.

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