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Are you a natural born leader? 18/08/2011

So much is written about being a good leader that one could be forgiven for believing that a good leader would be superhuman speed reader. But you don't have to be superhuman to become a good leader, so what does it take?

Are you a natural born leader?

Click to jump to section

  1. Learning from historical leaders
  2. Leadership factors
  3. Are you a natural leader/people person?
  4. A balanced leader
  5. Getting to know yourself
  6. Are you a 'good time Charlie'?
  7. Accepting your flaws
  8. Leading by communication
  9. The road to leadership

Learning from historical leaders

Before I start, just to be clear, it’s perhaps true that there are a few great leaders who are either naturally talented and/or are in the right place at the right moment to exercise their particular brand of leadership - for example, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

These great leaders are interesting to study and can help to inform the development of your personal leadership skills, as long as you ensure that you’re not overwhelmed by their leadership style and/or you’re not trying to find some form of quick recipe for leadership. 

There’s no one right way of leading and this is especially true in the current economic climate. Additionally, trying to be someone you aren’t will cause more problems than it solves, as discussed later in this paper, authenticity is crucial to being a good leader. 

Leadership factors

One of the best ways to become a good leader is to develop into the kind of leader that suits your interests, values, circumstances and personality. If you start from this point, you’re well on your way to becoming a good leader. If you start from the perspective that there’s one right way to lead, trouble is likely to be just round the corner.

One of the interests good leaders generally have is usually an interest in people. To reinforce this point for yourself, it’s worth generating a list of words and ideas you might associate with good leaders. It would be surprising if your list did not include at least some of the following: strategy, vision, direction, empowering, encouraging of a culture that supports the work of the organisation, a good communicator, a role model, the public face of the organisation, personally credible, courageous, influential, tenacious, energetic, an arbiter, a reference point, an orator, a decision maker - to name but a few possibilities.

Are you a natural leader/people person?

As you think about these words, it becomes clear that many have a people dimension and this is where good leadership comes into play. Good leadership is inextricably linked to the impact that people make in the workplace. It’s about galvanising and unifying activities. You can’t lead inanimate objects like computers, desks or offices – you can only lead people.

In order to better understand your predisposition for leadership, task yourself the following question. Think about a past, one-off event that you particularly enjoyed at work - run through this event in your mind. Then write down a few words to describe what you were enjoying. If your example turns about to be primarily concerned with things, or processes, rather than when you were leading, or being part of, a successful team, then a leadership role is likely to not be a natural choice for you, and becoming a good leader may be hard.

Being interested in things or processes is not a natural spring-board to securing the best possible future through the alignment, commitment and talent of the people within the organisation – although it’s not impossible. As Marcus Buckingham says: 'play to your strengths and you will be successful'. If being a technical expert is your thing then that’s great – the world of work needs expertise.

A balanced leader

If your response to the question about a one-time event you particularly enjoyed at work does involve people and team working and you are, for example, using the words: ‘when we….’ or ‘when the team….’, then leadership is likely to be a more natural option for you.

If this is the case then what is the balance required of a good leader? Here I take balance to mean the ability to flex one’s behaviour as required. So, for example, no single behaviour, or business activity is considered the answer to all problems. So, in the case of your behaviour, how can you build up your confidence and leadership ability, so that you know:

  • when to speak and when to listen
  • when to direct and when to coach
  • how to be driven but humble
  • how and when to exercise the proverbial ‘iron glove’ that Napoleon Bonaparte talked about
  • how to be optimistic but pragmatic
  • how to be strategic but in touch with people’s current issues
  • to enable business as usual while moving towards a different future?

Getting to know yourself

We all have biases and preferences and if we take the trouble to recognise them, as Einstein said, we can become the change we seek and by so doing, deliver that change. The key to being a balanced leader is to ensure that we understand those biases and preferences - we have self-knowledge. 

There are many ways to better understand ourselves - people who know us outside of work and close friends and family will often be good places to start to further develop our understanding of ourselves. Other options for generating self-knowledge include talking with colleagues, completing psychometrics and 360 degree feedback instruments, coaching, development programmes, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and experience that is reflected upon and learnt from.

Are you a 'good time Charlie'?

Hand-in-hand with knowing what we're like is accepting this and appreciating that connecting with people is the key to leadership and that this can be done in many ways, quietly or more loudly, from in front or from behind. Accepting this and accepting oneself ‘warts and all’ is a great platform for becoming the best leader you can become.

If you’re not sure about this point, watch the entertaining Universal DVD called Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts. It’s the story of a man who was generally regarded as a likeable, but ineffective ‘good time Charlie’ swilling affably around the US House of Representatives. The reality was that Charlie Wilson quietly and spectacularly changed the course of the Afghan war in the 1980s, while also being ‘good time Charlie’. In this witty and unorthodox film we see how Charlie’s network, contacts and his genuine interest in people gave him some much needed leverage.

Accepting your flaws

We're all the sum of our best and worst characteristics. Trying to be the perfect human being is much more likely to be damaging to oneself and those around us than simply accepting that we can do great work while being flawed and not trying to hide those flaws.

For example, for my part, I sometimes wish that attention to detail was part of the way I process the world, but it isn’t and no matter how hard I try, details will elude me, as they did when I arrived at Heathrow airport, delighted that I had remembered to bring my passport at such an early hour, only to find that passport control would not let me fly to Holland on my then 9 year old son’s passport. The passport official could not help but see the funny side of me trying to pose as a 9 year old boy.

Leading by communication

There are many ways to lead and to lead very successfully, the question is which way is best for you and how can you continue to play to your strengths, while being balanced, especially being balanced by others who have the skills which may not be natural to you. Above all be authentic and congruent. This can be achieved more easily than you might think by remembering how you feel when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t ‘ring true’ or when working with someone when you cannot anticipate from one minute to the next the behaviours (s)he is likely to exhibit.

Good leaders need to give of themselves. How do you respond to someone who gives little away? Naturally, we tend to match this behaviour and end up having little or no connection with such a person - the opposite of great leadership. If you can’t connect with people, it’s difficult to know how you’ll influence them to create a successful future.

The road to leadership

Some final thoughts: do you feel good about being a leader in your current context? Does it fit with your personal values? Can you see a route from where you are now, to where you would like to be in, say, 5 years time? Sometimes we rise to leadership by a planned process, sometimes we’re thrust into a leadership role by circumstances. This can be a wonderful way to become a good leader because an external stimulus allows us to become the leader that was lurking inside but had not emerged into the light of day.

So, regardless of your level within your organisation consider how you fit there as a leader and what you can do right now in order to step up and become the best leader you can be, warts and all.

Suzanne Pollack, co-director, leadership programme, Henley Business School

Suzanne Pollack, co-director, leadership programme, Henley Business School

Suzanne has helped a variety of clients on strategic issues and executive development initiatives, specialising in building high performing teams. She is qualified to work with a range of psychometrics and is a trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming.

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