Since school days we’ve been exposed to natural leaders – people who tend to take charge among their peers and are the popular choice to captain teams and lead groups.
A good example is David Beckham who retired from professional soccer this year after leading his team, Paris St. Germain, to victory and the top of the French table in his final game.
When Beckham was on the field he was a natural leader — from his days as a 17-year-old rookie with Manchester United all the way to his retirement this year at 38. England’s national coach, Steve McClaren, described him as “always doing extra on the training field. He inspired his team-mates through his performances… He was a leader, people followed him.”
Can Anyone Lead?
Many people believe some people are born with innate leadership qualities. Yet there is a significant industry built on developing and cultivating leaders, based on the premise that with the right education, training, and coaching almost anyone can become an effective leader.
There is no simple answer to the question of whether leaders are born or made. The evidence supporting natural-born leadership is strong, but there are ample examples of those who have developed as effective leaders and executives. Some people rise to the occasion in a crisis, others are mentored; some take advantage of advancement opportunities, still others appear to mature over time.
However, being a capable leader in principle and achieving exceptional results that are sustainable is another matter altogether.
Leadership is situational – knowing how and when to provide the right combination of direction and support is critical to the achievement of results.
Leaders face multiple challenges
Effective leaders must adapt to multiple variables, including: individual personalities and behaviours; team, organizational, and national cultures; competitive, customer, and other marketplace dynamics; government regulations and policies; organizational competencies and capacity; resource and system constraints; process complexity; resistance to change; power and politics; and product opportunities and limitations.
A leader who is over-reliant on his or her innate talents, one who fails to learn, adapt, and grow will ultimately meet his or her limitations. A leader who relies exclusively on formal training and development in a manner that is prescriptive or repetitive will fail to adjust and thrive in a turbulent marketplace.
While anyone can step forward and study leadership, not everyone will become an effective leader, and many simply do not wish to lead.
We can learn from leaders good and bad. We may actually learn more from the bad examples, given our emotional reactions to bullying, abuse, and incompetence. Too often, leaders ascend for the wrong reasons – they may be Machiavellian, aggressive, or intimidating; they may do whatever it takes to ingratiate themselves with decision-makers; or they may simply emulate what got their bosses ahead.
Because people are in leadership positions does not mean they are effective leaders.
The fact is, truly effective leadership requires a lifelong commitment to self-discovery, adaptation, refinement, and growth – developing new skills and insights to deal with ever-changing challenges. It is a daunting calling requiring constant vigilance, the willingness to learn, and the courage to stand alone. The best leaders are students as well as teachers; followers and initiators; humble and confident.
Effective, sustainable leadership is neither a formula to follow, a set of “best practices,” nor something one can truly ever “master.” It is a continuous complex journey of discovery.