Are leaders born or made? In reality it's both, with genetics giving some people a head start with qualities like extra charisma, determination, social intelligence or the ability to influence. It's thought that around 30% of these and other talents that make a leader are innate, and 70% are gained through experience and development.
You may have the 'right genes' to lead but these alone won't make you a leader. You have to work at developing you, consciously and intentionally. To develop your brain and its capacity to learn, create new pathways and embed new ways of thinking and being. Cells that fire together wire together. To put yourself in situations that stretch your leadership thinking and your leadership muscles.
Here's a few really practical ways you can develop yourself as a leader:
Become great at giving and receiving feedback, and at seeking it out, proactively. Make it easy for people to tell you the truth. The higher up the ladder you go the less likely people are to tell you the bad stuff about you or the business. Humans often exaggerate how much we agree with the opinions of people who have a higher status than us – it's known as 'the Ingratiation Effect'.
Look out for people and things to appreciate; give praise and recognition frequently, honestly and succinctly. Leadership means being great at engaging people. And people don't engage with negativity - they can't help avoiding it - it's the way our brains are wired for survival.
Become the best listener you can be. Let people know they matter, whatever their role or status. Don't just listen to respond, listen to ignite someone's thinking. Learn to curb that impulse to interrupt or say something witty. It's been said that Sheryl Sandberg makes you feel like you're the most important, interesting and intelligent person in the world - whoever you are - because of the way she listens. Even though she's an extravert herself.
Great leaders often take on challenges and succeed in tough situations out of sheer bloody-mindedness. They also make sure they build in down time to re-energize. Be as bloody-minded about protecting your down time as you are about taking on challenges. A burnt out leader is a sorry sight.
Look outwards. Take the focus off you and your immediate world and get involved in cross departmental projects or business partnerships. Be curious. Read about current affairs, leadership and the wider world. These will all widen your understanding, strengthen your collaborative abilities and increase your network.
Make presentations to very different audiences so you can learn to speak to different hearts and minds. Whenever you can, ditch the PowerPoint, focus on connecting. Never turn your back on the audience - keep your eyes in sight of their eyes.
Identify your weak spots and gaps and make a plan to fill them. If you're a talented ideas generator who can't read a set of company accounts then you'll not find it easy to become an impactful innovator. There's a big difference. Get a coach or mentor to work with you on your self- knowledge and challenge your thinking.
Get early experience in dealing with 3rd party advisors (e.g. lawyers, accountants, bankers, management consultants) or industry regulators. These can sound mundane but learning to listen to and talk their language may be crucial for you at some stage in the future. Road test yourself now.
Learn how to do really good interviews and how to hire really good people – as you go further up the ladder or grow your own business your ability to hire well will become critical. And if hiring is never going to be one of your main talents, as soon as you can, let someone else that you trust do the hiring. And let them get on with it.
Be on time. Always. Whoever you're meeting. Lateness can convey all kinds of messages that you don't intend: that you don't care, that other people don't matter, that you're disorganised, that you're arrogant. These don't send out "I'm a leader" messages. This is compounded if you don't let people that you're going to be late if you're unavoidably delayed. We've all got smart phones.
What would you add to this list? Or disagree with? I’d really welcome your comments!
© Linda Aspey 2015