Leadership - Nature vs. Nurture

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

Having had the good fortune of overseeing management teams over the years, I’ve talked endlessly about the word “leadership”. And, having to also hire managers that I thought would make good leaders, I’ve had to develop two things: an eye for potential managers who possess innate leadership traits, and programs for growth and development for those who don’t. Because, to me, it seems the answer to the question of whether a leader is born or made has been confirmed, and the answer is “yes”. To both.

If all leaders were simply born we wouldn’t need the huge, multi-million-dollar leadership industry that includes books, videos, seminars, weekend corporate get-away’s and the like. The focus would be to simply find the natural born leaders among us, give them the keys and get out of the way. Yet, that’s not the case, even taking into account vigorous vetting processes. Every day, people are hired or promoted into positions that have leadership requirements, and often they themselves do not naturally possess those skills. So then, what to do?

Let’s take Frank, someone I used to work with. Now, Frank is an amalgamation of many people I’ve worked with over the last 20 plus years, but his example is nonetheless real. Frank was a higher than average performer amongst his employee peer group and was deservedly promoted to management in a company that believed in promoting from within, which is a sound policy. Yet Frank found out quickly that high-performance on the employee level doesn’t necessarily mean instant success on the management level. What made Frank successful in his front-line job didn’t translate to becoming a good manager/leader because the skills required to do so are different. And since no good manager who values his time would do the work for his subordinates, Frank was left with a quandary - he was no longer doing the thing he was best at, the thing that got him promoted in the first place. His role now was more about oversight, accountability and insuring that his team performed at high levels. A totally different task. In fact, trying to do the thing he was once best at as a team member would be a detriment to the very team he was now leading. And people like Frank, who didn’t naturally possess the leadership skills to meet the requirements of his new role, are inclined to withdraw because the “in over your head” feeling of panic can start to seep in. In this case, the contrasting feelings of competence and confidence from a former role is sharpened against the new feelings of self-doubt, questioning and the fear of admitting one’s new struggle to higher-ups. And, although these feelings are common for newer leaders, there’s a dangerous tendency that can push them further and further from their subordinates as, in their shame, they try to hide their self-perceived incompetence. Ultimately, this spiral leads to even worse results, worse performance, and worse overall leadership.

I’ve seen examples like Frank’s many times and, according to industry leaders, it’s not uncommon across many businesses. So, what’s a guy like Frank left to do? First, he should understand that leadership skills CAN be learned. A recent leadership study by the University of Illinois addresses the age-old question of nature vs. nature. It finds that the skills, habits and mindsets of leadership can be taught and learned, provided that those seeking to become good leaders put in the work. What matters most, the study says, is the willingness to acquire leadership skills in the first place. They ask, “are you ready to lead, motivated to lead, and effective in your efforts once you’re in a place to lead”? They call this approach the ‘Ready, Willing and Able’ model. Psychology Today had this to say about the report, which is quite poignant in real-world scenarios:

“It is when new managers are not quite ‘Ready and Willing’ that they are most likely to stick their heads in the sand and either ignore their role as leaders or assume a ‘stock’ leadership position such as being authoritarian.

Instead, new managers—especially those who feel hesitant about leading—need to acknowledge (to themselves) that they feel unprepared (or unequipped) to assume a leadership role and translate these worries and concerns into motivation to improve their skillset.”

And Frank could’ve also understood that he was not alone in having to learn leadership skills. Actually, he’s in the majority. The same University of Illinois study found that the break-down of learned leaders to natural born leaders is 70/30. In other words, the blessed natural born leaders among us make up 30% of the population that wishes to lead. These are the people that author and researcher Daniel Goleman would call the “natural leaders”, the lucky few who have the “talent seen in theater directors, in military officers and in effective heads of organizations and units of all kinds. On the playground, this is the child who takes the lead in deciding what everyone will play, or becomes team captain.” The remaining 70%, like Frank, are the ones who will have to work for it. And, it’s important to note that even natural born leaders have to constantly hone their craft. Leadership is a journey where corrections, adjustments and continued learning are necessary to work towards greater impact.

Sadly, in the end, Frank didn’t make it as a leader and gladly returned to the ranks of front-line workers where he felt more comfortable. It’s not that Frank didn’t want to put in the work – he wanted badly to succeed. But he lacked another component of good leadership that goes beyond the work but greatly compliments the findings of the U of I study. Self-awareness, the component Frank lacked, is perhaps THE most important aspect of growing as a leader. After all, how can you go from point A to point B when you have no idea you’re REALLY starting out at point Q? If one lacks the ability or willingness for self-monitoring and self-assessment how can one be honest with oneself about their own successes and failures? Frank’s inability to look in the mirror and understand how truly far he was from point A made getting to point B nearly impossible. And, sadly, in this too, Frank was not alone. Leadership guru and author Erika Andersen says that only about 25% of the executives she’s coached over the past two decades are genuinely self-aware. And author Dr. David Sutton’s research has found that most leaders are notoriously poor at evaluating their own performance, often ignoring or denying any hint that they suffer from gaps or blind spots in how they see themselves versus how they’re subordinates do. Like many human beings, leaders tend not to see their own flaws and fancy themselves as better than the rest.

In the context of ‘Ready, Willing, Able’, self-awareness shows up at every stage. To be ready to take on leadership learning, one must understand where they’re starting from. They must be willing to ask themselves the hard questions and continue this practice so that they may grow, develop and impact the people they lead. The 70% who really have to work to become effective leaders must be vigilant about this to avoid slipping into old habits that can undermine their leadership goals, and this starts with self-awareness.

And finally, poor Frank (he really is a good guy, or guys) didn’t love the idea of leadership. He loved the title, but not the fuzzy concept of impacting people in a positive way to attain results. Because whether you’re a natural born leader or not, good leaders love the idea of leadership. They love helping people, they love developing people, they love setting, working towards and achieving goals and getting a group across a finish line. Good leaders want results, not thank you’s or praise and aren’t caught up in titles. Leadership is a selfless activity for the benefit of others, whether an individual or a group. It’s not a romantic love, of course, it’s a passion for achievement and the success of others. The Greek language has six different terms for love (i.e. “Philia”, the love of friendship and comradeship, as in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love). The Greek word Agape was their term for selfless love or doing for others without an expectation of anything in return. That’s leadership. Frank had a love for promotion, title and more money, but never embraced what leadership is all about. He never held the concept of Agape in his heart.

So, while the leadership “nature vs. nurture” question hasn’t been settled for all time as of this writing, it’s good to know that it’s clear you can become a good leader if you weren’t born with leadership skill sets. It’s also good to know that there are some fairly universal traits that make good leadership, and some were discussed here. Self-awareness, a willingness to understand and work towards leadership traits and a love for seeing others succeed are just a few. Genetics don't necessarily trump learning if the un-endowed prospective leader is willing to work for it. In other words, there’s still hope for good ole’ Frank.

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