Are great leaders born or can anyone be developed as a leader by an organisation?  The argument of natural talent versus improvement of everyone over time.

One of the common questions I get asked as part of the work I do is whether great leaders are naturally born that way or whether anyone can be developed over time within an organisation.  A great question that can set your organisation up for significant success given that senior leadership is the most important predictor of a great culture which leads to significant performance at all levels.

The most successful organisations are the ones that are the best recruiters and retainers of people who have the potential to become great leaders.   You cannot develop people without any leadership potential – no matter how hard you work at it.  As John Maxwell put it in his book on the 5 Levels of Leadership, “Recruiting a non-leader to be developed is like asking a horse to climb a tree.  It just isn’t going to happen.  Thinking every person you place in to a formal senior leadership role is a leader or will develop over time is unrealistic and works on false hope.  They must have some natural leadership talent that you can develop in to something great.”

In terms of some of these key attributes, the following is my thoughts on what I look for in potential leaders prior to assuming leadership positions:

  • They can build effective relationships with people.  The ability to do this becomes more important the more senior the role.  Without it, people will not follow them which is critical in any leadership role
  • They have integrity and strong values and role model the right behaviours.  People watch what leaders do rather than what they say.  The easiest way to gain respect is through your actions not your words.   People trust leaders who do the right things.
  • Ability to grow and improve.  Is the person coachable and open to feedback?   Are they self aware of their weaknesses and also know how to leverage their strengths?   This is not only in technical areas but also in their behaviours, attitudes and personal resilience.
  • They serve others rather than themselves.   This is an intrinsic motivation to help others, develop others and empower others through creating a great environment that delivers great outcomes.  This ability to want to develop others has to be part of the makeup of a potential leader.  Being able to identify a self serving leader versus a serving leader is important and is not something that can be faked.
  • They deliver.  They execute, they meet their commitments and they ensure others are held to account.  
  • They strike the balance between people and task which is important for any leader.

Lou Holtz put it well when stating “I’ve had good players, and I’ve had bad players.  I’m a better coach with good players”. Coaches in sporting organisations start with athletes who have some natural ability.  It is no different with leaders.  They have to have some natural talent and a predisposition to want to be leaders and demonstrate the attributes above.   By being in the right environment with the attributes above, they can learn, grow and develop to be terrific leaders with great coaching, mentoring and on the job training.  

People may start at different levels along the leadership journey, but they must have these attributes and also have role models at all levels of the organisation and the right environment to thrive.  Make it easier on yourself and elevate people that give you the best chance of success.   Your culture and people will thank you for it.

To understand the balance of people vs task at the various levels of your organisation download this handy tool here