It seems an everlasting question about the origins of leadership; can anyone be made into a leader? Is someone a leader or not, a condition anointed at birth? I’ve spent my career working with leaders of all levels and capability levels seeking to understand the answer to these very questions.
To be clear, we’re talking about true leaders, big “L” leaders; those of whom most of us are in awe for their vision, ability to inspire others, do new and unprecedented things. Those who succeed in making an indelible mark on their part of the world. The world is mostly comprised of little “L” leaders who can lead departments and groups through variations of the status quo. There is also a sizable number of little “L” leaders masquerading as big “L” leaders, sometimes causing harm but usually their self-delusion is benign to everyone except themselves.
What I’ve observed about big “L” leaders may sound trite or mitigated, but I think accurate. Leaders are both made and born. In other words, one cannot turn anyone into a leader, and a naturally born leader must have the benefit of certain experiences to allow their innate leadership attributes to flourish into something the rest of us can appreciate. So what are these innate characteristics, and what are these critical experiences?
Again, my responses lead me to conclusions which are more ambiguous than I would like. And the characteristics and experiences are inextricably linked.
Leaders must have an internal desire to serve a purpose; they must desire to serve something larger than themselves. They must also be exposed to a situation that inspires them to discover and articulate that purpose and then the drive to pursue it in the face of countless setbacks. Leaders must also have a desire to learn, be curious and perpetually improve. They must consequently have the benefit of education, coaches and mentors, and those who provide clear, honest and constructive feedback. Leaders must be humble and invest themselves in the service of others. True humility comes from love and so leaders must have had the opportunity to experience real, self-sacrificing love in any of their relationships. So long as the person also has the ticket-to-entry level of intelligence, he or she will make their mark.
I’ve spent years of my life and tens of millions of dollars trying to turn people into leaders. The sad discovery has been that in any group I’m privileged to work with, there are only 1 or 2 with all the natural prerequisites. My job became simply providing the experiences to help their capabilities emerge, and by consequence help improve the little “L” leadership of all the others. And how can you tell who’s who? The little “L” leaders became easily identified as they sooner or later migrate to the sidelines, discouraged and worn out by the prevailing headwinds but comforted by the legions of little “L” sideline cohabitants. The big “L” leaders by contrast forge on, oblivious to naysayers and frustrated by the legions of comfort-seeking little ”L” leaders, racing only against themselves, for themselves.