Following a two-day leadership training recently, a client of mine called to share the highlights of his learning, and some frustrations. This client, who is well educated, competent, and has a strong desire to be part of a successful team, was hired a year ago by an international company eager to recruit young talent – its next generation of leaders.
Unfortunately, twelve months into the job, while his boss and his team kept expecting him to be a leader, he had become very confused about what being a leader really means and what he was supposed to do to feel like one. Fortunately, his company is supportive of his desire to improve, and encourages his coaching sessions and additional training.
But at the two-day company event, he encountered a question that seems to come up over and over again: Are leaders born or made? “Seriously,” he said. “How many people wake up in the morning thinking ‘Wow, what a great day! I am a leader!’ or, ‘Today is the day I have become a leader!’”
I don’t think the answer is in any doubt, and my thirty years of professional experience working with leaders and aspiring leaders confirms, for me, an inescapable conclusion: leaders are made. And I am not alone in this feeling.
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born, that there is a genetic factor to leadership,” says Warren Bennis, an American organizational consultant and author. “The myth asserts that people either have certain charismatic qualities, or they don’t. That’s nonsense. In fact, the opposite is true – leaders are made rather than born.”
The only question, then, is “How are leaders made?”
Today, everybody is clamoring for leadership: in politics, in business, in education. In times of uncertainty we seek people who can reassure us by exhibiting confidence, competence and foresight, people who can inspire us and move us at the same time.
To move others, though, as Socrates pointed out, one has to start by moving oneself. To navigate the waters of leadership, one has to embark on an inward journey of self-discovery – and complete that journey – before starting the outward journey of leadership and supportive mutual purpose.
The Inward Journey – Moving Yourself
The first journey, the inward journey, is about self discovery. It is about identifying our needs and our values, and about understanding how these needs and values influence our thinking, our behaviors and ultimately, how they influence our lives. It is about finding out what is important to us and what we are passionate about. Ultimately, it is about defining who we are and what we want to achieve.
Our ability to discover ourselves relies on our willingness to ask four questions: Who: Who am I and who do I want to be?
What: What do I want for myself and what do I want to achieve?
Why: Why do I want to achieve these things?
How: How can I become who I want to be and how can I get what I want – what actions do I need to take to achieve my goals?
While these questions sound simple, to answer them, one needs to undertake an intense self-reflective process, one that is critical to developing a genuine sense of self. And being able to answer them truthfully requires stepping boldly toward what one thinks is a deeper and bigger self.
“There is no first step toward self-knowledge without hazard or risk to the surface self we already know.” – David Whyte (Yorkshire-born poet)
Fortunately, one of the positive results of this process is that, after having made the journey of self-discovery, the aspiring leader will reach a higher level of self-awareness, a significant level of competence in a chosen field, and increased skill in self management.
After having acquired a deeper understanding of oneself and fulfilled personal dreams, the aspiring leader can then embark on the outward journey, the journey of reaching out to others, the journey of contribution, where supporting and inspiring others is as important as serving oneself.
The Outward Journey of Leadership
Many people who aspire to leadership positions often do so from the wrong point of reference. Their ambitions are self-serving, ego-driven attempts to get more money, more power or more recognition. So they may have the title, and the responsibilities expected of leaders – and they may be perceived as very successful – but they fall far short of being leaders.
Fortunately, many managers, like my client, understand that if the conventional purpose of leadership is to get results through people productivity, real leadership is about developing people through their work performance. They look beyond themselves to try to find out what their team members want, what they value and what they wish to achieve. As a leader, as someone in a position of authority, my client quickly discovered that he has an obligation to offer others the opportunity to learn and to grow.
His job as a leaders, says Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, is “to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunity and feels they’re having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society.”
Leaders who are recognized to be the best in their field like Larry Page, or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, are often the ones we look up to for advice, guidance and inspiration. But one can also be the best in his field, like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, without necessarily being inclined to offer support and guidance to others (even though his ideas were inspiring).
Soon after he joined his company, my client understood that he would never be able to lead his team if he wasn’t a credible leader. To believe him and to follow him, his team members needed him first to communicate his overall vision for the department he was in charge of and the objectives they were expected to achieve. His next challenge was to motivate them, by helping them focus their talent and energy toward the company’s goals.
Last but not least, he had to find regular opportunities to encourage, support and value them by providing ongoing feedback. He now knows that his performance will be evaluated by what his department accomplishes, but also that his leadership skills and potential will be assessed by the degree to which his team is motivated and inspired to contribute to the company’s overall success.
Leadership is not the answer to all the demanding issues we are confronted with in today’s world, but leaders who have completed their inner journey and are travelling the outward journey have powerful abilities to help others dealing with challenges of mistrust and fear.
To address today’s uncertainty and to become the inspiring architect of tomorrow, the aspiring leader needs to embrace the personal transformation experienced searching inward. Once the inner journey is complete, he can focus on the needs and wants of others, and it is that focus that fosters the meaningful discourse and actions that lead to tremendous success.
Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.