Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The myth of the natural leader – cultivating effective leadership skills

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 17, 2010

Myths per se can be positive and offer genuine insight, and stereotypes can be archetypal and enlightening. But myths can also mislead and cause problems if accepted at face value and stereotypes can be hollow cartoons. The myth of the natural leader follows the later of those possibilities much more than it does the former but it is persistent enough so that I see a need to discuss it here. It is easy to assume that leaders are somehow born and not made. But real, effective leadership skills come from experience at least as much as from innate disposition, and effective leadership has to be grounded in the reality of experience.

Leadership capability can be and usually is learned, and even those who in some sense start out with a head start in that from having the right temperament for leadership can learn to do better. And that is the good news for anyone who finds that their career has brought them to a position where they are responsible for managing others. Effective management skills can be learned. Effective leadership skills can be learned too.

I want to start this posting by briefly outlining what leadership and management are, as points of contrast to each other if nothing else. Leaders, after all, frequently find themselves managing and managers usually have to lead to one degree or other to be effective as managers. And I offer Wikipedia links for the two terms for further details as to styles and approaches for both.

Leadership is a process of social influence in which an individual organizes a collective effort that works towards collectively shared goals. There are many variations and approaches to this including autocratic and authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire but the underlying concept of directing and organizing through processes of social influence are central to all of them, and regardless of legal or other organizing frameworks that may be in place to justify and to delineate the range of this social influence.
Management, by contrast, consists of the processes of planning, organizing, staffing, evaluating and reviewing and so on through which leadership is carried out in an operational sense.
• Management is operational and involves coordinating to get tasks more efficiently performed, and particularly where that calls for group effort.
• Leadership serves to motivate members of that group to contribute in shared, managed effort.

Put slightly differently, management is mechanistic and process driven. The steps of these processes and the tools for identifying and achieving them in carrying out management responsibilities can be spelled out in detail and learned and that in fact constitutes a significant part of business training, whether on the job or in an educational program. Leadership per se focuses on soft skills – interpersonal and communications skills. And experience is the best teacher for them.

Identify and study role models in leadership and learn from them. In this, positive role models in the form of effective and even inspiring managers and leaders can help you identify traits and approaches that you would do well to emulate, but bad and ineffective managers and leaders can be your most effective teachers. Looking back at my own experience, I have gained a lot from working with some very effective managers and leaders, but I have really learned my most important lessons from their ineffective and even toxic counterparts – people who micromanage, people who play favorites or play one team member off against another or who simply fail to stay effectively connected and involved and whose leadership styles and approaches serve more to divide and discourage than to unite and inspire. And in this, our own mistakes and the lessons we learn from them can be among our best and most compelling teachers.

When you assume that leadership ability is simply something that a select few are born with, you only look outward for leadership ability and not for opportunity to cultivate this potential in yourself – and perhaps even when assuming a management position where leadership skills are needed and even essential. Effective leadership comes from within and is cultivated as the cumulative product of lessons learned.

We are a social species and even when as individuals we seek our own answers and approaches. We do, by and large work effectively in teams, or at least we have the capacity to do so. Most of us, most of the time look outside of ourselves for organizing guidance and organizing motivation to keep the groups and teams we are in focused and performing. Leaders are the people turned to for this.

• Leaders and even effective leaders make mistakes – but learn from them.
• Effective leaders are willing to follow this ongoing learning curve.
• They are willing to accept responsibility and both for themselves and for others that this entails.
• And they strive for excellence, and for their group, organization or team and all its members and not just for themselves personally.
• They strive for unity and cohesion and for momentum towards meaningful goals.
• And this brings me to a major point I have raised in other postings in this blog, among other places. Leaders create and share a vision as to what those team and organizational goals are, that they then motivate and influence team members to work towards.

Perhaps the single most toxic leadership failure I have ever worked with was first and foremost an empire builder – a person who sought to advance his own career and at the expense of all around him, of the organization he worked for and its mission, and the team members he worked with. He scrapped a successful team because he had not built it himself and he replaced it with one in his image, creating discord and concern that rippled out like a rock thrown into a pond. I learned a lot from him and from observing and working with him but perhaps the most compelling lesson was that a true leader has to subordinate their own personal goals and ambitions to the larger needs of the organization and its mission if either is to succeed – the individual leader or the group they lead. And you really have to look and listen and not just speak to do this, and you have to build from a foundation of respect for the people you work with and depend on to get the job done.

This lesson in failed leadership lasted a bit less than a year at that job before moving on. I mentally refer back to lessons learned from that experience and to the rest of my experience base, in how to and how not to lead every time I find myself facing management or leadership responsibilities. In that, I see myself as a work in progress and I strive to become and to be an effective leader.

• Effective leaders have to show a confidence of vision, but they cannot become complacent either. There is always more to learn.
• Perfection is a mirage. Effective leadership has to be grounded in the practical and achievable. That does not mean not striving to do better. It means keeping goals and expectations grounded in reality.
• Effective leaders empower others and encourage them to grow towards their fuller potential.
• Teams are collaborative efforts and effective leaders foster and encourage communication and collaboration. These and the positive results they can create in achieving team goals are powerful motivators in creating virtuous cycles of performance and results.

I have been sketching out some of my thoughts on what leadership is in this posting and simply offer it as a work in progress coming from a student of leadership and management. I am sure that I will come back to this in future postings as well.

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