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Leadership: Nature versus Nurture

Whence leadership? The question surely predated enterprise education, but it's taken on new importance as organizations look for ways to develop this crucial competency. Explore how — and whether — leadership can be cultivated through learning.

January 26, 2007
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Talent Management, Measurement, Talent Management, Coaching, Mentoring, Metrics, Leadership Development, Measurement

Leadership: Is it born or is it bred? It's more of a philosophical question than it is a point of debate. For business leaders, though, it's an important question worthy of exploration. Asking whether someone can be nurtured, or "brought up," as a leader is fundamentally questioning whether we can train people to be leaders, regardless of their personal attributes. The very idea of "developing" leaders suggests there are existing skills and abilities to be developed. More likely, it is the right mix of traits, skills, experience and the organizational environment that makes great leaders. Identifying those characteristics that can and cannot be developed is clearly important as organizations strive to populate their talent pools for critical leadership positions.

Leadership Traits and Competencies
Consider the CLO. To effectively drive their initiatives and meaningfully contribute to the organization's bottom line, CLOs must possess a certain body of knowledge specific to their area. One of their key roles is to develop learning architectures and link learning objectives to business needs. Effective CLOs will possess the technical knowledge (e.g. learning technologies, theories of adult development, training metrics and organizational theory) necessary to create a learning architecture that delivers results and builds corporate capabilities (e.g. a stronger leadership pipeline). Although more than just technical knowledge is needed to create and implement learning and development solutions, is it a defining element of a successful CLO?

Inherent in developing learning programs is the role of the CLO as an agent of change. Developing a learning architecture usually means redesigning or replacing an old one. Therefore, CLOs must be proficient at leading change and addressing the resistance that is a part of any change initiative. This requires knowledge of organizational design and development.

As an agent of change, the CLO also must possess excellent interpersonal and communication skills. A CLO must be able to gain the respect, confidence, partnership and participation of senior management. With a lead role in driving new learning initiatives, the CLO must be able to engage and influence individuals throughout all levels of the organization, including the highest-ranking executives.

Changing shared beliefs and values in an organization is likely to be painstaking and difficult, with many challenges that require perseverance. In addition, the new learning architecture might bring about significant structural changes. Both can result in significant resistance to the CLO's vision of transforming the way the organization trains and develops individuals. The CLO must be able to communicate effectively with others and energize key stakeholders to commit to a shared vision.

Finally, a CLO must possess many personal characteristics (what you might consider to be traits) that followers would expect a leader to possess. Successful learning leaders are most often dynamic, energetic, extroverted and self-confident. They also demonstrate other key traits, including being helpful, understanding, motivated, hard-working, strong, clever and dedicated. Employees expect leaders to exhibit these characteristics, regardless of how effective the leader might be, and those who do not are likely to struggle in a leadership capacity.

Developed or Innate?
Looking back at the key competencies discussed for effective CLOs, it is apparent some of these characteristics are a direct result of learning and development. Technical knowledge is acquired through schooling, training and experience and is thus developed. Of course, intelligence sets the stage and influences the extent, retention and ability to leverage learning. The more complicated the learning material, the greater the level of intelligence needed to master and retain the material.

While intelligence is generally thought to be innate, its definition and measurement have been subjects of great debate. Putting aside the arguments about whether intelligence is culturally defined, successful leaders do not need to be geniuses. But they do need to possess strong enough skills in critical thinking, judgment and verbal reasoning to develop and leverage the body of knowledge that is required for their particular area. While there might be a ceiling on the extent to which individuals can develop these skills that is genetically determined, it is likely each of them can be developed and refined through experience and education.

Additionally, personality characteristics such as being charismatic, dynamic, conscientious, extroverted and creative are commonly associated with effective leaders. Although there is some disagreement over how much one's personality is shaped after birth, there is general agreement that personality stabilizes and is set by the time an individual first enters the workplace. Someone who possesses this mix of characteristics is more in line with what a born leader, one whom others are naturally drawn to, listen to and rally behind

Clearly, certain innate traits might make effective leadership more likely, while other key leadership competencies can be developed. The mix of innate qualities and developed skills truly is what defines an individual's leadership style. According to The Center for Creative Leadership, there are several critical leadership competencies that can be developed. These include self-awareness, self-confidence, systemic thinking, interpersonal/social skills, creative thinking and the ability to learn from experience.

While some people might be born with the ability, for example, to think creatively, the difference between this kind of skill and the aforementioned traits is that they can be developed despite their initial absence. You cannot turn an introvert into an extrovert, but you can teach an introvert to interact more effectively with peers through proper talent management and delegation techniques.

Selection Plus Development
Just as everyone is not a born leader, not everyone can be developed into a leader (or the road to becoming a leader might be longer than the organization is willing to tolerate). Therefore, selection of the right people should be the first part of a two-pronged approach in which recruitment and development operate hand-in-hand to ensure an organization possesses the talent needed to sustain performance and grow. Selecting for competencies that are aligned with the goals and mission of the business, in addition to general competencies that speak to the values of the organization, is critical to drive the organization forward and manage for the future. An organization cannot rely solely on its incumbent workforce as a source for its future leaders - the marketplace is too dynamic, the development process can be lengthy and the requirements are ever-changing.

Leadership development should be viewed as an ongoing process. Although leadership development might take place in classroom settings or in assessment exercises as part of a feedback-intensive program, developing leadership skills occurs over time. As such, developmental experiences should be built in to day-to-day responsibilities.

For example, it is unlikely someone's communication skills can be improved after a two-day workshop. Further, it is important individuals understand the development of a particular skill will not occur overnight and will require their own commitment to developing the skill. Individuals must be taught techniques that can be practiced through everyday work, allowing them to apply the lessons learned and monitor their own development.

Leadership development techniques such as 360-degree feedback and coaching can be quite effective for identifying growth opportunities and developing the required competencies. With 360-degree feedback tools, feedback is gathered from the leader's manager, peers, co-workers, direct reports and, sometimes, customers, and it is presented back to the individual. A 360 can be an effective method to identify deficiencies in key competencies such as strategic leadership and communication skills. This sort of tool serves to enhance self-awareness, and it lays the foundation for meaningful change.

An awareness of oneself and one's impact on others is a critical characteristic that many managers lack. For leadership, perception is reality. Managers who lack self-awareness often fail to uncover and understand the source of organizational resistance to their initiatives. Charisma can take a leader only so far. Targeted self-reflection, such as that provided by 360-degree feedback and associated coaching, allows a leader to meaningfully address those innate or developed characteristics that are suppressing full potential. Executive coaching can be a very effective method for alleviating critical skill deficiencies. Other techniques such as developmental assessment centers, stretch assignments and mentoring also can be effective methods for developing leadership skills.

Finding the Right Fit
Leadership is obviously an extremely complex concept. To anoint a person as a born leader suggests this person would be successful in any situation. But leadership does not exist in a vacuum, nor does the organization in which the leader will function. Let's look again at the CLO. For some situations, a CLO might not encounter much resistance to learning initiatives because of the support a CEO provides. In this case, a dynamic leader might not be necessary, and the ability to strategize and implement learning structures would be more critical. Sometimes, leadership arises out of times of crisis, when significant upheaval is necessary for survival. In this situation, a dynamic and bold decision-maker might be necessary. Therefore, traits are important, but they are not universally important for all situations.

So, is a leader born or bred? It is almost impossible to imagine how a business leader could be effective managing complex organizational initiatives without possessing a certain amount of organizational savvy or technical knowledge, both of which are clearly acquired through classroom and hands-on learning.

One's interest and ability to develop these skills, however, might be genetically determined. Genetic predispositions certainly aid in the developmental process but are not sufficient on their own to create great leaders. Even born leaders require development along the way to fit in with the situational requirements of the organization and its mission. It is important to recognize that leadership is multifaceted in terms of traits and characteristics, and the right mix of these traits and characteristics will depend on the organizational structure and overall environment in which the leader will be expected to operate.

Therefore, the best strategy is to focus on finding and developing leaders who fit with the needs and values of the organization. That can be determined only by identifying the key leadership requirements of the organization and then developing the leadership profile(s) that will carry the organization forward in achieving its goals.

Scott M. Reithel, Ph.D., and David M. Finch, Ph.D., are consultants with APT Inc. They can be reached at

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