The organisation where we worked had a leadership program that was largely equivalent to an MBA. It represented a big financial investment on behalf of the company and demanded a significant amount of time and commitment from the individuals selected to participate.
After lengthy consideration by a management group, only a very few people were deemed suitable to go forward to the evaluation process. Potential candidates were examined using an online system of tests, questionnaires, and a plethora of tools that try to give insight into leadership potential.
I decided to put the manager forward for consideration and submitted a strong proposal for his candidacy. He was accepted and the process of evaluation began. Once the results were reviewed, I received a call from the head of organisational development within the company. He insisted I have a sit down meeting to discuss the results and also ‘corrective’ actions. To my surprise the manager had failed the leadership evaluation. So bad were the results that it even cast doubt on his ability to do his current job as a departmental manager.
Shocked and surprised I decided to deliver the bad news myself, in person, to the manager. His reaction was a lesson in grace, tenacity, and resilience. He responded in a manner, which basically summed up that you can’t win all the battles and that we must push onwards, upwards.
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I decided to review the situation. I knew he had great feedback and engagement from the staff. His internal customers spoke very highly of him and his ability to meet their requirements. External stakeholders valued his contributions and even people outside of the direct day-today activities valued this person. He was a master of stakeholder management at all levels.
It was then that I concluded that the evaluation must be wrong. How could such an obvious leader be read so wrong?
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Leadership boot camps, yearlong programs, even one-day workshops tend to drive a false sense of success in those people selected to be leaders. The candidates are, more often than not, chosen for political reasons rather than true potential or capability.
For me it became clear that leadership isn’t just about theory. It is a quality or behaviour that can’t be truly taught. Some can mimic the traits but people quickly spot the mimic from the real thing.
Leadership in this instance was more than just high scores on a dashboard; it was the whole versus the sum of the parts. The manager in question was executive material, a person who could rise to the top and be successful. Time has proven my assessment and the person in question holds a senior position outside of the company we both worked at.
Since then, more and more companies have become obsessed with developing leaders and measuring leadership. Leadership boot camps, yearlong programs, even one-day workshops all strive to imbue leadership qualities and behaviours into people who may or may not possess leadership potential. This kind of training tends to drive a false sense of success in those people selected to be leaders. The candidates are, more often than not, chosen for political reasons rather than true potential or capability. This breeds resentment amongst those with talent that otherwise go unrecognised.
The subsequent product of this ‘leadership by numbers' approach usually ends with very mediocre leaders who fail to deliver. While it’s easy to learn from a good leader, it’s even easier to learn from a bad one. The process delivers bad leaders who invariably fail with rather easy and obvious lessons to learn, littering the organisation with failures.
My own experience tells me that you are either a leader or you’re not. Good leaders are not made, but rather they are discovered through circumstances where a person stands up and holds him/herself accountable on behalf of others.
Leadership is often thrust upon those not quite ready for leadership, not out of choice or design, but usually because others perceive the presence of leadership qualities when those qualities are most needed.
Top three leadership traits
All leaders have different traits which help define them. Some traits are more obvious than others but for me these three are the more important ones:
All great leaders bring about change in one shape or another. Leading through change is the greatest challenge of all. Change can be forced upon those in authority or it can be instigated by the very same people. Either way, bringing people on a journey of change takes great skill, dedication, empathy and courage.
Change is the one thing that most of us resist. It forces us to expend energy which evolution has taught us to conserve zealously. Our primeval selves survived by conserving energy in a calorie-constrained environment. Great leaders and most successful people constantly tussle with these primeval traits and eventually overcome our inherent drawbacks.
Leadership often involves challenging the status quo and by definition, taking risks. It’s incumbent on good leaders to take calculated risks in order to secure the ongoing development and prosperity of those they are charged with.
A good leader knows when to take calculated risks versus callous, gratuitous risks. There are times however, when a leader is compelled to take risks based on very little or poor information, forced to use both instinct and experience. This kind of emotive leadership can lead to success and prosperity or failure and despair. In both cases, the leader must maintain the morale and motivation of the people in order to take on the next challenge.
Shields of stability
During periods of change and instability, it is the burden and duty of a leader to shield people from uncertainty until such time as stability can be seen on the horizon. This does not mean deceiving those under the stewardship of the leader but more importantly giving focus and balance to offset what could be a difficult period.
Whilst leadership is a ‘got it or you haven’t’ quality that very few of us posses, a good leader is always able to learn and improve their leadership abilities.
Unlike those who believe that anyone can be ‘programmed’ to become a leader, I believe that good leaders can become great leaders through careful mentoring, tutoring and experience.
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It’s often overlooked in organisations, but existing leaders can always be developed further. This development yields much greater benefit to the organisation than the development of new, unrecognised leaders.
During periods of change and instability, it is the burden and duty of a leader to shield people from uncertainty until such time as stability can be seen on the horizon.
The obsessive focus in companies today is to have as many leaders come through the ranks as possible. History has taught us that leaders are few and far between, great leaders are even rarer. Whilst the development of a few people may seem elitist, we must recognise that leadership is not about equality.
Not age dependent
It’s often a misconception that leadership is a function of age. In my experience leadership is akin to wisdom, which can be summed up as the difference between knowledge and experience. Wisdom can be attained by gaining experience in a compressed time frame. Soldiers in the theatre of battle acquire a lot of experience in a much-reduced timeline. This exposure drives combat tactics (wisdom) and forces the survival instinct to tie into the military training (knowledge), thereby resulting in a wise, alert and capable soldier.
The same kinds of compressed experiential exposure develop leadership skills in the young. Scout programs, team sports, and other group activities tend to develop leaders either by design or by accident. We live in an age where US President, Barrack Obama, was 47 when inaugurated, a mere teenager by any other definition.
Leadership isn’t a solo activity. Most leaders are supported by great people who help them deal with the problems we all face. Self doubt, uncertainty, emotional challenges, even well disguised character flaws can all be managed by those who stand by those who lead.
In summary, leadership is demonstrated and not measured. In my opinion leadership is an ineffable quality which cannot be distilled, analysed, deconstructed and then injected or programmed into those who don't possess this quality innately.
The ordinary workplace can be dysfunctional when it comes to the identification and development of leaders. Instead of focussing on the bulk development of people to become leaders, let us put in place systems through which potential leaders can be identified and then developed. This should be the focus area for all organisations, recognising once and for all that not all are born to lead.
Bradley de Souza (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an internationally recognised CIO/CTO who has specialised in change and transformation across industries around the world.
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