Once upon a time in a land or galaxy pretty far away, well, in reality it was probably last Tuesday and as close as the cubicle a couple over, there sat someone who has the potential to become a great leader. Actually, it might very well have been you. There are all kinds of theories about the characteristics of those who make it to the top of their profession, organization, or group. These theories are based on research and analysis by people recognized as leaders in their fields of study. There are theories that say you must be born with special characteristics or traits to become a leader – and it is hard to argue that it isn’t helpful to be born with intelligence, alertness, insight, responsibility, initiative, persistence, self-confidence, and sociability. If I am going to follow someone into deep water (a/k/a that new and very challenging project at work), I’d really like it s/he has a good dose of all of these. Other researchers did their own research and came up with theories that say, wait! Even if you weren’t born with all of the characteristics, you still have a chance – you can learn technical skills in your field such as the law, engineering, or manufacturing. You can learn human skills – everyone feels better following someone whom they feel understands them and talks to them like they are real people. And, you can learn skills which help you see the big picture and create a vision. If you really want to succeed, it is helpful to learn some of all of these – and at least one researcher concluded that even if your technical skills are more middle of the road you can succeed in leadership if you have high level people and conceptual skills.
Whether a leader is born or made is an age old question. For businesses, it may be helpful to at least consider that it may be a bit of both. Take “W” – a 50-something year old male who started working in his father’s business when he was a teenager and never left. When his father retired, W took over the family business and pretty much tripled the business before his own retirement. By all accounts, W was smart, attuned to what was going on in his industry, insightful about new trends, never shied away from responsibility, took initiative to gain as much technical expertise as he could and kept his knowledge base up to date with changing times, even when his plans did not pan out he was persistent and most of the time eventually succeeded at least somewhat in whatever he had attempted, and he was self-confident. Whether people liked W or not, they always felt they knew where he stood. Reading this list, it would be easy to assume W was born to lead. But, perhaps it was the countless hours of reading and research learning how every piece of equipment worked. Or, it could have been the decades of his father’s tutorage that helped him create those big picture visions of growing the company. And, it makes sense that working in the same industry for decades taught him the importance of establishing good working relationships with the people who worked with and for him. So, why was W successful? Perhaps it was a perfect storm sort of combination – because if had not been born with at least some of the “born with” traits, he might not have worked so hard to gain the skills he clearly had. And, even if he were born with all of the leadership traits but didn’t put them to use by working hard to develop technical, people, and conceptual skills, those wonderful attributes would have either been used for something else or gone to waste.
So, what can companies do? Companies can keep in mind that people are complicated and often they bring a hodgepodge to the table. Assess employees for leadership positions without limiting the analysis to whether s/he was born with certain personality traits or simply developed (or needs to develop) certain skills. If an employee is intelligent, shows initiative, and is self-confident but lacks technical skills it may be worth the time and expense to help that employee fill up his or her leadership attribute basket. If an employee has awesome technical skills but is lacking self-confidence, then working with the employee to build confidence may turn a middle of the road employee into a good manager.
Finally, if the “employee” is YOU, what can you do? Take a self-assessment – there are a lot of personality assessments out there. Or, ask others to take the time to assess you. Either way, you may be surprised to learn your strong points and build on them.
Doubleday Dictionary, 1974, p. 408 Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Northouse, P.G. (2007). Leadership Theory and Practice (7th Ed). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. (citing Kirkpatrick and Locke).
Northouse, P.G. (2007). Leadership Theory and Practice (7th Ed). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. (citing Stogdill, R, 1974).
Northouse, P.G. (2007). Leadership Theory and Practice (7th Ed). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. (citing to Katz, R., Harvard Business Review, 1955)