Have you heard any of these phrases?
“He’s not a leader.”
“She just doesn’t have that inherent leadership ability.”
“You’re either a leader, or you’re not.”
I have heard statements like these hundreds of times to describe the “leadership” qualities of an individual throughout my career. And if I’m being honest, I must admit that I too have said words like this. At this point in my career I no longer possess the youthful vanity to make such declarations, but I had no problem making these sweeping, judgmental statements when I was a younger leader. I thought I knew the formula for what a leader was, and could use that filter to define the leadership value and potential in others. I was so wrong, naive in my ignorance.
At a minimum, a limited definition of leadership is profoundly arrogant, and—as I’ve discovered in my own false quality judgements—most often completely inaccurate.
Warren Bennis, the pioneer of leadership studies, said this, "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born -- that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born."
What I’m Really Saying Is…
I don’t believe I was intentionally malicious when thinking or expressing such views. I had bought into a narrow, limited definition of leadership that had more to do with my own personal preferences than discerning the attributes people are willing to follow. Even in recent years as I have heard others use similar phrases, it was usually that person describing how someone else didn’t manifest the attributes of “leadership” that they most value in another person. A highly subjective measure for the definition of leadership.
I had a boss at one point in my career who told me—in no uncertain terms—that one of my team members was not a leader and I needed to limit his role significantly. But I knew and experienced that staff member differently than my boss did, so I chose to ignore his warning. I didn’t disregard this input in a spirit of rebellion or arrogance, but because I believed his perception to be without merited context and experience. This staff member didn’t fit into a specific mold that my boss considered “leadership capability,” but I experienced the quality of his leadership on a daily basis and knew the importance of his impact.
This staff member became one of my favorite people to lead, and to watch lead others. He drew the best out of his teams, inspiring them to be more and better. He called me out whenever my leadership was diminishing rather than empowering. He was courageous and inspiring. To be honest, there were times his challenging spirit was hard on my ego, but not because he was doing anything wrong or wasn’t a leader. It was hard because I would prefer to only hear how great I am, rather than the truthful challenge to grow and be better.
When I have used phrases that define a limiting view of a person’s leadership potential, it has rarely been about the actual leadership capacity of that person, and far more about my own weakness and insecurity. Leading a person who doesn’t see everything like me takes more time, but is ultimately better. Empowering a person who is willing to challenge me can be frustrating and emotionally taxing, but where we land—and who I become through it—is always more beneficial to the organization than if people weren’t challenging me.
When I—or others—describe someone as “not a leader” what’s really being said is:
- I don’t understand how that person thinks.
- I don’t want to take the time required to learn more about her/his perspective, or to help them understand mine.
- I am unwilling to consider their corrections that might be hard for me to hear.
- Their tone isn’t how I best receive information or feedback, so she/he must not be a “good” leader.
You’ll notice in the list above that all of the rationale for defining someone else with a limited capacity is self serving and preference based. The best leaders I’ve experienced are focused on the cause and helping others flourish. Conversely, the worst leaders I’ve experienced tend to focus on how they can use others to serve their own needs and see the work of true development as annoying and a waste of time.
Forged In The Fire
One of the significant challenges in prejudging anyone as “not a leader”, is in the missed opportunity to provide developmental opportunities both for the individual and the organization.
I have never been “ready” for any significant leadership role I have taken on in my 22 years of leading teams and managing people. Every role was a stretch, to say the least. Leadership, like a strong piece of steel that supports a building, is forged by the fire of being given an opportunity beyond one's preparedness. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a lazy, unprepared approach to leadership. I believe wholly in the importance of a diligent and disciplined method of leadership development. But waiting for others—or ourselves—to be ready to lead won’t develop the qualities needed to guide people.
The job of a manager or leader is to discern the potential in her/his people, develop it with consistent and candid feedback, and provide stretching opportunities to lead just beyond experience and preparedness. The job of a leader is to take a risk and empower people into roles they may fail at now, in order to give the experiences needed to help them not fail at bigger (more expensive) projects in the future.
This entire process is derailed by prematurely defining the potential of a person based on our own lack of discipline to give the required effort of objective evaluation and adequately define a plan for growth. Our people need our belief, feedback and intentional opportunities to become better leaders. Anything less is managerial malpractice.
The Danger Of Charisma
I love the Warren Bennis quote above. It’s a reminder of the effort required to both develop and be developed as a leader. So many great authors have written about his idea in recent years, including Carol Dweck and Malcom Gladwell to name a few of my favorites. Their books, and countless others, have affirmed with science and data that born talent or qualities define very little about the eventual success of an individual.
Bennis specifically mentions the absurdity of defining leadership as the presence of “certain charismatic qualities”. This may be the greatest danger of a limited definition of leadership: mistaking intellect and charisma as “true” leadership and other qualities as unimportant. It’s a similar danger to promoting extraverts because of the power of their personality, while defining introverts as “individual contributors”, losing out on all their thoughtful intentionality that is incredibly important in decision making. Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, would argue this is a huge mistake based on limited thinking about what really makes a leader.
A number of years ago I watched a documentary entitled, The Smartest Guys In The Room, about the rise and rapid fall of Enron. This film serves as a cautionary tale about the danger of assuming natural born ability and intelligence will lead to long-term success. I highly recommend watching this profound piece. There is much for each of us to learn from their demise.
What I have learned from my own experiences—and from the experiences of others—is that developed, charactered leadership trumps natural born charisma every time. Just as you wouldn’t want to work in a building where the steel hadn’t been forged in flame, you ultimately don’t want to lead or work in a company where the leadership hasn’t either. I know there can always be a short term argument made to hire or keep the amazing salesperson who is full of charisma, but lacks any character. But that short-term rationale seems less convincing as a long-term client feels they’ve been lied to and moves on to the competition for their future needs. The sad truth is that in many organizations that character-less salesperson would be defined as a leader, while others sit on the sideline, buying time till they can get hired somewhere where their potential will be developed.
What if we saw every person as a leader, each with a different continuum of potential and experience, but a leader nonetheless? What leadership potential and capacity is going undeveloped and untapped on our teams because we’ve gotten caught in too narrow a definition of leadership? How would our people currently describe the quality of your belief in them and leadership of them? What if our leadership was even just 10% more focused on the development and needs of others, than our own preferences? How would that shift change a team dynamic or sense of worth / potential for those we lead? It’s time for each of us to get better at leading the people we’ve been entrusted, and sometimes getting better begins with the most basic foundation of how we see them.