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March 2011

THE LEADERSHIP CONUNDRUM

Are Leaders born or made?

There are many people who are clearly to a large extent “born” to be what we call leaders. Heroes are among them. We can think of a George Washington, a Winston Churchill, a Nelson Mandela, who were heroes to their people. Their larger-than-life achievements, personas and capabilities may indeed be partially ‘gifts’ that then had to be honed through practice and made manifest in the crucible of crucial experiences — either those experiences they sought out or else those that came their way. These heroes often lead by the inspiration of their abilities and talents.

Exemplars are another appellation. While the heroes above were certainly exemplary in many ways, a Mandela was more specifically a moral exemplar in transcending hatred and forgiving his captors, Gandhi was an exemplar in standing for peaceful resistance, Albert Schweitzer as a missionary, physician and humanitarian was an exemplar…an example of humanity we can all rally to. Such exemplars are usually morally courageous people who take a stand in practical ways that make a pragmatic impact on others. They lead by example.

Charismatics are often considered leaders in that people like being around them, and they have a magnetic personality that draws people to them. They ‘lead’ in the sense that others will follow, and you will find such so-called ‘natural born’ leaders everywhere from the school playground to a social gathering. When they speak, others listen. Often such people become political leaders or stand-out in the spheres of entertainment and communication. They lead by force of personality.

Being heroic or gifted in some way, exemplifying values and convictions, and having the charisma to get attention and have people desire to follow you are all important attributes and certainly can be parlayed into leadership.

But you can also be a great hero and a poor leader, a wonderful exemplar and yet ineffective in getting your agenda through, powerfully charismatic but unable to build leaders and teams underneath you — only acolytes and followers.

So leadership in the sense that it can be “made” or “taught” or “developed” (all the above potentials can be improved and can require great sacrifice and dedication to fulfill certainly, but are more talent-based to some extent) is about the following skills, convictions and capabilities:

  • The ability to enroll people behind a visionary objective or future and to make that future aspiration credible and personally relevant to their own lives and aspirations. Leaders enlarge people’s abilities by enlarging their aspirations: by opening up larger possibilities to take on.
  • The ability to galvanize efforts by linking people’s values and priorities to the visionary objective while synergizing them into a collective community of people who sign up to deliver these aims and who agree to be mutually accountable for them. Leaders tap beliefs and desires and call on commitment and connection.
  • The ability to mobilize and convert intentions into action and to break ground with the most value-adding, relevant, urgent and impactful “bold courageous steps” that can create powerful forward momentum. Leaders are action catalysts and ensure action begets feedback loops and real-time learning.
  • The ability to focus efforts and to synchronize them so the activity in a team or organization becomes a net multiplier of capability not a net nullifier of it. Leaders ensure efforts are concentrated, prioritized and leveraged.
  • The ability to follow through on the most critical areas of focus and the most crucial vision and mission-central priorities established. Leaders also ensure everyone’s definition of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ is harmonized and makes sense based on what success and failure mean in the actual marketplace and with real customers.
  • The ability to encourage and enable progress always and breakthroughs when possible. We need to keep our batteries charged, and meaningful real-time encouragement of the right attitudes, actions, interactions and commitment is powerful. Leaders know encouragement is a personal matter and customize recognition whenever they can. Leaders also have to find out what’s impeding progress, unearthing bureaucratic or hierarchical passion killers, and tackling them forcefully with zeal to unlock potential and enable success.
  • The ability to challenge plateaus, inertia, unconstructive behaviors, roadblocks and organizational gridlock, as well as nay-sayers, cynics and others. However, paradoxically to retain the ability to be coachable, to hear divergent viewpoints, to make room for the devil’s advocates (as long as their commitment to the vision is not in question), to listen actively to ideas and suggestions and to be approachable and accessible, retaining a hospitality for helpful input from wherever it may come.
  • The ability to face facts fast and with sufficient humility to learn their lessons rather than rationalize away the sting of insights that may reflect badly on past decisions or actions. Yet always to face those facts with the imagination to convert the barriers into opportunities, and to be an alchemist with obstacles, not just a chemist.

You know a leader is present finally by impact. A leader is ultimately someone who delivers a result through others that would be unlikely to be achieved otherwise.

A leader is measured by the value they add to the assets they have in their stewardship, delivered through the people in their charge who have to optimize those assets and convert them into organizational capabilities and business performance.

Leadership is essentially then the value added. It’s known by its impact, not by its attributes solely.

So leaders are “made” insofar as they have to build the skills of enrolling, galvanizing, synergizing, mobilizing, focusing, following through, encouraging and enabling, challenging, being coachable, facing facts, responding with imagination and seeking always to add value to the efforts of their teams and colleagues.

“To make it easy to deliver value” and to “increase the value that can be added” are the high water marks of leadership contribution.

Thomas Edison once said, “If we could only do what we are capable of, we would literally astonish ourselves.” After all, what more could be asked? And certainly nothing more would really be needed.

Buckminster Fuller said that he looked for what needs to be done, pointing out that after all, that is how the universe continues to design itself.

Imagine if leaders ensured that their teams first defined and then did what most needs to be done, and delivered what they are capable of, while actively removing the interference and barriers that could keep that capability from evolving and growing. Surely that has to be the litmus test of real leadership.

Yes this may be a life-time’s education and development. And indeed, not all leaders need to be equally skilled in all of these aptitudes. Wise ones will assemble a team accordingly, to build on their own talents and to reinforce or bolster areas which aren’t their own greatest strengths.

Leaders also need to develop a “teachable point of view” or TPOV as it was called in GE. To find out what they are best at modeling, teaching and representing and to empower other leaders with other TPOV’s to fill the gaps and ensure a richer overall leadership continuum.

But leaders seriously deficient in any of the above, need deliberate practice. All of these are ‘necessary’ if not ‘sufficient’ to the exciting, extraordinary and exhilarating challenge of growing leaders rather than followers, building teams and not just groups, producing customer success and not just customer responsiveness, and co-creating with others a culture that can anchor both today’s success and tomorrow’s vision.