Are the Best Leaders Born or Made?
We’ve all seen it: a management position opens up at work, and a colleague is promoted into it without having any formal leadership training. Those of us who have seen this happen more than a few times know that a newly minted manager’s chances for success are something of a coin flip.
Why do some inexperienced managers flourish in their new roles, while others flounder? Are some people simply born with leadership skills? Or can leadership be learned?
Can Leadership Be Learned?
The answer is yes: leadership is built on psychological traits, but the most important of those appears to be the desire to learn how to be a good leader. Before exploring this idea, let’s take a quick look at the traditional way that leaders are identified and promoted.
Too often, employees are promoted to leadership positions on the strength of their performance at their current jobs. The reasoning behind such moves is straightforward: people who are good at a particular role are best able to teach others how to do so, and to hold them to high standards of performance.
This reasoning presumes that leadership is inherent in some people, and that the qualities that allow an employee to excel in a non-managerial role will prove just as productive when the employee is asked to lead others.
Managers Must Learn New Skills
Managing others, however, requires an entirely different skillset from those of non-management functions. New managers who are psychologically unprepared for the role often fall back on what they know, focusing on the processes and methods that made them such productive employees before their promotions.
The result, whether it is expressed as a too-narrow focus on doing work in a particular way or as a retreat into their own work and away from the team, tends to ignore the very things that make good managers so effective.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. By recognizing management as a function all its own, and a new one even for employees promoted straight up the org chart, new managers can learn how to become better leaders. New managers can, in essence, learn to excel at another skill…even if they don’t think they were born to lead.
Captains of industry tend to agree. As former Aetna CEO and author of Learning to Lead, Ron Williams puts it, “many believe that leaders are born with some innate charisma, and certainly there are leaders who do have that capability. But the vast majority of leadership is learned.”
Ready Willing and Able
Researchers have underscored the observations of Williams and other proven leaders. In the Journal of Leadership Education, a team led by Dr. Kari Keating reported “significant gains” in leadership skill, efficacy, and motivation among students who completed a leadership-theory course. It concludes by identifying “seeing oneself as a leader” as the key to developing “the skills and group-focused motivation required to practice leadership.”
Dr. Keating’s team proposes a Ready-Willing-Able model of leadership development that describes the three qualities they find to be essential in aspiring leaders. By placing readiness—“leadership self-efficacy” in the terms used by the study (seeing yourself as a leader to the rest of us)—at the heart of leadership development, the model breaks with the traditional practice of promotion based on productivity. Willingness, or the motivation to take on the social and interpersonal challenges of leadership, comes next; only then does ability, or leadership skill (the tools you have), become truly important.
That’s good news for younger professionals who hope to rise through the ranks and become managers. The best preparation for leadership turns out not to be sheer charisma or exceptional performance in non-leadership capacities. Rather, the best way to develop leadership skills begins with wanting to.
Taking the Next Steps
Of course, wanting to become a leader amounts to more than simply hoping for a promotion. Readiness for leadership means seeing oneself as a setter of agendas, an enforcer of priorities, and a harmonizer of disparate egos. It also means developing the self-confidence that allows leaders to influence groups of people toward the pursuit of common goals.
The findings described in the Keating’s research is even better news for newly promoted managers who may find that the skills that got them into a leadership position don’t help them make the most of their new role.
The first step is acknowledging the discrepancy: as good as you were at your previous job, management is an entirely new game. From there, the path to strong, confident, productive leadership begins with an acceptance of the new challenge and an enthusiasm for seeing yourself in a new light.
The skills, it turns out, proceed from there. It may be that no one is truly born to lead. But those of us who were born curious and have a desire to improve have the best chance of all to succeed as leaders.
RECAP: Are the Best Leaders Born or Made?
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