By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

Great leaders: are they born or made? It’s a question that has been vigorously debated since the dawn of time, well, at least since the dawn of capitalism.

But before we can answer that question, we first need to define what leadership is.

At True North Learning we see leadership as having 2 functions. The first function of  leadership is to capture the hearts and minds of those they lead and then align them toward the goals, vision and purpose of the organisation. The second function of leadership is to manage the team they lead, the individuals within that team, and finally the task at hand.

However, the role of leadership that we are noticing in many organisations looks very different to the above. We are noticing that individuals are getting promoted into leadership roles based predominantly on their technical expertise. In other words, if they are a talented engineer or IT consultant or teacher, there is an assumption that they will also be capable of leading a team of engineers, IT consultants or teachers respectively. This thinking fails to recognise that the skill set required to be an engineer is very different to the skill set required to lead a team of engineers. It’s like saying because I am good at cricket, I am also good at football because they are both ball sports. As a result we see and work with many leaders who feel over whelmed, stressed-out and under skilled in their roles, primarily because they have been placed in roles that they may not be suited to or have the necessary skill set to be effective in.

Often we find the more skilled and specialised someone is at the technical aspects of their role, the harder they find it to make the transition into a leadership role. This is because the method of developing technical skills compared to leadership skills is vastly different. Technical skills are usually acquired through traditional education ie reading, taking notes, classes, university courses, apprenticeships etc. Also, they are generally specific to that role or job and cannot be transferred to another role.

Leadership skills on the other hand, whilst somewhat based on theory, are primarily a behavioural skills set. Leadership skills can be transferred to a different role ie if you can lead a team of engineers, in theory you should be able to lead a team of teachers. But the key difference is in how leadership skills are acquired. Because they are behavioural, leadership skills cannot be developed by knowledge alone. It is well documented that knowledge alone does not change behaviours.

Behavioural skills such as leadership skills are developed by “doing”. “Doing” is a 3 step process. Firstly you need to do an activity or task which places you in a leadership role. Second, is the opportunity to reflect on how you performed during that activity.  In reflecting you can see where you were effective and find ways to maximise or leverage that.  You can also explore where you were not so effective, and find ways to manage or develop those aspects. And then thirdly, as athletes do, practice, practice, practice until those desired behaviours become second nature. This is where Experiential Learning is a powerful and outcome-driven methodology for supporting effective behaviours and building individual and team capacity.

Therefore when organisations fill roles, especially leadership roles, with the intention of creating a high performance workplace or team, it is essential to have a clear understanding of whether the performance gap (between current function and optimal function) is of a technical nature or of a leadership/behavioural nature. This then allows organisations to screen/ seek the most appropriate people for the role and/or put in place the most suitable training and development strategy ie not pursue technical training for a behavioural issue.

So back to our original question-are great leaders born or made? If we see the 2 functions of leadership as firstly capturing the hearts and minds of those they lead and secondly to manage team, individual and task, then the answer to the question is BOTH. In other words, great leaders are both born and made.

This is because development of a leaders’ ability to manage team, individual and task is very teachable. This developmental process is optimised when the training methodology  used  focuses on the behavioural aspects of leadership (as opposed to being purely knowledge based).

However, we believe that there is an aspect of the ability to win hearts and minds that is not teachable. This is because this capability comes from a certain charisma and capacity to motivate people. It’s an ability to relate to, deeply understand, build rapport with, and inspire people from a diversity of backgrounds. This ability can be developed to an extent, but if its not a strong part of your intrinsic make up, then training and development can only go so far (no matter how hard, or how much I train, I am never going to run like Usain Bolt)

This does not, however, mean that leaders should not focus on their own development in the 2 elements of effective leadership. We believe that an openness and commitment to their own personal and professional growth is one of the ethical responsibilities of leadership. And besides, even though we all can’t be the Usain Bolt of the leadership world, there is something very noble and profound in the quest.

Let us know what you think: Are great leaders born or made?