Are You Born a Leader or is it Something That is Learned?

The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote, titled “Leadership Observations of a Management Consultant.”  I will be releasing more excerpts over time.

ARE YOU BORN A LEADER OR IS IT SOMETHING THAT IS LEARNED?

How are Effective Leaders Made?

Many people, including my clients from over the years, have asked me, “What is the best way for me to become a leader?”  It’s a difficult question because there are a number of factors that help prepare one for a leadership position, but there are other factors (characteristics) related to leadership that are not easy to obtain if you do not have them already.  Below are some of the factors that I believe help prepare one for a leadership position.

Academics:

Colleges and Business Schools provide much in the way of understanding the administrative aspects of leadership positions and the ways businesses operate.  This is good foundational knowledge that can help future leaders be prepared for some of the challenges they will face during their careers.  While no academic curriculum can truly prepare someone with everything they will need to be successful, academics do help with the awakening process for skills that will become increasingly important to future leaders.

Job Roles – Rotational Assignments:

A leader’s ability to be successful is directly proportional to their understanding of how their organization interacts with others and how all organizations fit together to satisfy the customer and the shareholders.  The most effective way of gaining this knowledge is for leaders and future leaders to work in multiple organizations and be able to view their own organizations from the outside-in.  No leader who only has an inside-out perspective of their operations can ever truly understand the context in which their organization exists and, therefore, make the best decisions for the company as a whole.  Job rotation across other functional areas should be a requirement for leadership eligibility.

Rule of 30 (for men only):

As I management consultant, I try to avoid making sweeping generalizations.  But, there is one that I will make here, based on 25 years of observation and recognizing a repeating pattern: No male under the age of 30 should be placed in a leadership position.  It has been my experience that, because men mature more slowly than women do and because the testosterone levels in males do not begin to subside until a man reaches 30, most men are incapable of being effective leaders until after they reach 30.  Young males are often too preoccupied with what leadership can do for them, rather than what they can do for others from their position of leadership.  There are exceptions, as there are in everything, but I have met few male leaders who were ready for the job or did the job well while still in their 20s.  Generally speaking, the Rule of 30 does not apply to female leaders, who do not seem to have the same decision-making challenges or ego issues in their 20’s as their male counterparts.

I had the experience of working for a company where the majority of the executive leadership team was under the age of 30 – the CEO was 28, the CFO was 26, and most of the regional Vice Presidents were under 29.  This was a $750M medical imaging and distribution company that had over 40 branches across the United States.  The company had grown through 50 acquisitions over a 36 month time period, but had never integrated the acquisitions into a single company model.

The executive leadership team ran this company like a fraternity house.  They acted like their job was a game and the people who worked for them were just names.  They made bad decisions daily that impacted the lives of hundreds of employees and shareholders.  The company lost $Millions because of decisions made by a group of people who were too focused on themselves and not focused at all on the customers, the staff, or the owners.  It came as no surprise to anyone when the Board of Directors fired the bulk of the senior leadership team for non-performance – anyone except for the leaders who were fired, who acted completely surprised.  Their buy-out packages gave them several $Million each, which was a small consolation for the hundreds of employees who were let go when the company was purchased by its biggest competitor.

This is an extreme example, but it represents my point.  Leadership requires maturity, and this is a quality that few males under the age of 30 have in sufficient quantity to be effective leaders.

Embrace and Manage Change:

The ability of embrace and manage change is what separates those who will be leaders in the future from those who will be removed from leadership positions.  Business changes at lightning speed.  Leaders who will remain leaders will be those who can successfully adapt to changing conditions.  Leaders who will be removed from leadership positions will be those who desperately cling on to the past and cannot adapt themselves or their organizations to new operating imperatives.  It takes courage to abandon tried and true methods, but future leaders will have to be prepared to do just that – not in a reckless or foolish manner, but based upon a thoughtful examination of trends and events occurring across their industry.  A leader’s job is to manage change and help their organizations transition to new ways of operating.  How can leaders do this if they cannot embrace the need to change?  How can leaders do this if they are not willing to change themselves and lead by example?

Know Who You Are Leading:

Leaders inspire the people they are leading, but how can a leader do this if they do not know whom they are leading?  How can a leader know what will inspire and what will turn away the people being led?  You must understand the people you are leading to be an effective leader.

I had the misfortune to witness one of the worst examples of “clueless” leadership several years ago.  I was part of a project team that was implementing a large, automated administration system for a global corporation.  Many people on the project team had been forced to cancel their plans for the previous Christmas holidays because the project was behind schedule.  It was now the second week of December and the entire project team of 150 engineers had just been told that all Christmas holiday plans for that year would also have to be cancelled.

The CIO (Chief Information Officer) for the corporation wanted to do something for the project team to demonstrate how much he appreciated their sacrifices for the project.  This CIO was from West Virginia coal country and knew that there was a place near where he grew up that had the purest source of coal in the country.  He ordered several hundred nuggets of this special coal, had them scrubbed, cleaned, sealed, and wrapped in beautiful little packages with a scroll that thanked each person for being a “diamond in the rough.”

The CIO called an “all hands meeting,” had pizza brought in, gave a short speech about how great he thought everyone was, and began handing out the little packages to everyone on the project team.  By the time he had handed out the 10th little package, the first person had opened his package to find a lump of coal on a small plastic display stand, along with the scroll that was rolled so tight it looked like a small stick.  This person turned red, faced the CIO, and shouted, “you’re giving us a lump of coal for Christmas?!”

The CIO was dumfounded.  In his zeal to use a symbolic gesture to build morale, he never considered the rage he would cause by telling people on one day they had to cancel their Christmas holiday plans, and then giving each of them a lump of coal on the next day.  The person who shouted at the CIO went immediately to his desk, cleaned it out, and left the company that day.  Within two months, over 1/3 of the project team had left the company.

The CIO did not know his people and was a completely ineffective leader.  He was replaced as CIO a short time later, and to this day he still does not fully understand why everyone did not appreciate his gesture of being called a diamond in the rough.

 

There is no single answer to the question: “what makes a good leader.”  What makes someone successful in one setting many not make them successful in another.  The situation and circumstances determine what a leader must do to be successful.  This paper has attempted to focus on what a leader must be and how a leader must act to be successful.

Ultimately, the measurement of a leader’s success is the ability of the people they lead to be successful.  A leader must never lose sight of the fact that they exist because of their people.  Thomas Paine, as well as other great thinkers of his age, believed that government derives its power from the consent of the governed.  Authority is given to leaders from those who are being led.  This is part of the “contract” between those who lead and those who are led.  A leader must never forget that their position of leadership (not their management title) and their authority is something that must be constantly earned.  It is not a right.  Individuals must consent to be led for a leader to have the ability to lead them.  A leader must understand and appreciate this relationship and the responsibilities that go with it to be successful in the long term.

About wbspeirjr

Author of "Muzzle-Loading Artillery for Reenactors," the 9-book action/adventure series "The Knights of the Saltier," five historical novels ("King's Ransom," "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," "Arthur, King," "The Besieged Pharaoh"), the sci fi novel "The Olympium of Bacchus 12," and the fantasy novel "The Kingstone of Airmid." William is also a 5-time Royal Palm Literary Award winner: 2014 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "King’s Ransom," 2015 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," 2017 Second Place Published Historical Fiction for Arthur, King," 2017 First Place Published Historical Fiction for "Nicaea – The Rise of the Imperial Church," and 2017 First Place Published Science Fiction for "The Olympium of Bacchus 12."
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