Leadership: Are people born with the skill or can it be acquired?
I have gone grey teaching leadership. One question that has been thrown at me fervently and frequently is whether people are born leaders or whether leadership can be taught. Every time that quixotic question is thrown at me, my mind races back to Shakespeare, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”. When I throw the question back on the person, the most popular reply I receive is “leadership can be learnt, but not taught”. Then my mind races back to the adage “what can be learnt can be taught”.
I would then argue with my clients and student how leadership can be taught (by self and/or by others) and try to give several example; Eklavya, Lincoln and Gandhi being my favorites. But my mind still had a shade of doubt, and I would ask myself whether I am making these arguments only to perpetuate my profession of teaching leadership and making money out of it.
Thanks to technology and genetics, I got some reprieve to my agony sometime in 2013 when the noted research on genetic impact of leadership was published in the Leadership Quarterly. The title of the article is “Born to Lead: A twin design and genetic association study of leadership”. The article elegantly argues that human beings have a genotype called rs4950, and this has some relationship to heritability of leadership seeking behavior. About 24 percent of the reason why a person tends to seek leadership position can be explained by this genotype. Of course the study does not point to specific genes or neurological process. Reading the title almost demolished my passion to argue my case for teaching leadership. But wait a minute. What about the remaining 76 percent? Eureka! I now had a solid argument to substantiate that teaching and training is central to meet this 76 percent, which remained unexplained by the genotype.
Bouyed with this insight, I now confront this age-old debate whether people are born leaders or they can learn leadership with a new found vigor. Yes, leadership can be learnt, and what can be learnt can be taught. Of course, the teacher matters.
Then I asked myself how to teach leadership? A blip came into my mind – competencies. First propagated by McClelland and later reasserted by Boyatzis and several other researchers, today it is a settled argument that competencies drive performance. It follows that leadership competencies would drive leadership performance. But what are leadership competencies and how do I train people on it? It dawned on me that leaders perform three fundamental roles – direction setting, creating alignment and creating engagement with people.
The competency for setting direction is making a vision statement. The framework for this has been laid down very lucidly by Collins and Porras – a vision should have core values, core purpose, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG pronounced as beehag) and a vivid description. I teach this framework. I do not let the student wander in search of core values in the Wild West as most trainers do. I coax them to look at the formidable research of Schwartz and Rokeach, who identifies what values are. The reason is that by following the framework, it is easier to create the congruence required between individual and organizational values. The role of creating alignment is done through competencies related to performance management and change management. And the role of creating engagement is done through competencies of providing motivational support, fostering team work, empowering others, developing others and fostering diversity. All these can be effectively trained by using experiential learning tools such as films, cases, storytelling, computerized simulations, and role plays; and don’t forget creating a journal that helps you reflect.
Be assured. Once, you would have mastered these competencies, you would have learnt to lead effectively. Today I am clearer than ever before…..leadership can be acquired, learnt, taught or in whatever way you may choose the describe the idea. Sure, let us give a little to heritability; but bulk of it is learning. Just look for a masterful teacher to navigate you through.
Prof. P.S. James
T A Pai Management Institute, Manipal