Leaders really are made and not born

Photo: Getty Images

Do you remember that executive who was such a natural? She never seemed stressed, always knew the right thing to say, delivered good results consistently. A born leader, right? Just had the right genes for leadership from the start.

Remember that other boss you had? He was rubbish. Not much point trying to fix him. He just wasn’t a leader.

That’s how it looked. But it wasn’t true.

My company’s research from multiple fields, as diverse as neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, especially in response to learning experience or following injury) and musicology, shows that skills are not as innate as we naturally believe.

And that applies to leadership just as much as any other capability.

Now, it’s abundantly clear that, while factors such as genetics, motivation and environment have a material impact, capabilities are not innate. Remarkable studies have shown that, with the right techniques, almost all people can acquire almost any skill. And everyone has the ability to improve.

So how could this be? That leader you admired was always a natural talent, wasn’t she?

A funny thing happens when you ask the most impressive leaders if they were always great leaders. They all say no. Is that just humility? Not at all.

They are able to describe the shortcomings they had when they started out and how they built much greater leadership skill over time.

What do they say when asked how they improved? Typically, they talk about factors such as:

    – Going through experiences for which they were not then fully equipped, taking them outside their comfort zone and usually resulting in some mistakes
    – Getting feedback (either from others or from the evidence staring them in the face) on where they had slipped
    – Recognising the opportunity for improvement and wanting to get better
    – Committing to improvement and diligently learning, testing and improving their approach

Some will describe additional elements. Perhaps a mentor or coach who gave them good advice, or a role model on whom they modelled themselves. Perhaps a seminar, speaker or book with a message that stuck with them. These elements often vary.

But what doesn’t vary is that they rewired the circuitry in their brain and that this changed their behaviour.

Today, it is possible to study the brain and see how it changes as the result of a significant learning experience.

For example, London cab drivers have a larger posterior hippocampus (a key spatial memory centre in the brain) than the average person and the longer they have been driving a taxi, the larger it is.

They weren’t born that way; they grew their brain in response to being stretched in this capability area and quickly learning from experience.

Even seemingly unattainable skills such as perfect pitch have been shown to be learnable. In an experiment at a music school in Tokyo, 24 children between the ages of two and six were taught to recognise chords played on a piano.

The kids received four or five short training sessions per day, each just a few minutes, until they could name 14 targeted chords.

Within a year and a half, every single child could do it. They had achieved perfect pitch – something that was considered to be completely innate. This study has been replicated in countless settings. As long as the learning approach is right, the capability is acquirable.

The same is true of leadership. It’s a more complex construct than spatial memory or perfect pitch, but it still comes from building effective neural pathways. Of course, very few say that they ‘rewired the circuitry in their brain’. But that is what they mean when they say that they ‘reflected on what had happened’, ‘learned by trial and error’, ‘adopted a new approach’ and so on.

Photo: iStock

What do those who’ve most improved their leadership have in common? That their methods have been highly effective in rewiring the circuitry in their brain. They’ve:

    – Taken more risks (usually in the form of trying things that stretch them beyond their current capability level),
    – Been more reflective and more open to improving their level of self-awareness,
    – Been more willing to change their practices to more effective approaches, and
    – Been more disciplined and persistent in testing and improving their approach.

But, you say, what about that leader who was already so good in their early twenties? Surely they didn’t have time to do all that? There are two key findings about people who are prodigiously good leaders early in their career:

    – Firstly, they have had time to do all that. They just didn’t do it in the corporate world. They had taken all the same steps as described above, but they’d done them in other fields (sports, music, school, church, clubs, part-time jobs, etc). And by doing these things at a younger age, when brains are more pliable, the learning process had been more rapid and enduring than it is for an adult.
    – Secondly, they may have been a good leader but frequently, they were still some way from being a great leader. They may be impressive, but they usually aren’t as good as those who’ve been mastering the craft of leadership for many decades more.

So is this simply a matter of time? Not at all. Holding a leadership role for years won’t make you a better leader any more than singing along to the radio for years will give you perfect pitch. Sadly, there are vast numbers of people who’ve been in management roles for decades and haven’t materially improved their leadership skills.

But this isn’t because leaders are born. It’s because they haven’t invested the required time, effort, open-mindedness, humility and self-awareness to improve.

So does all of this mean that no aspects of leadership are innate? Not necessarily. In the same way that someone tall has a better chance of being a basketballer or someone with a high IQ has a better chance of becoming a theoretical physicist, some people will have a better or worse starting point for becoming a leader.

The important point is that while we can’t do anything about our starting point, we can do a great deal about how far we progress from there. We can all get much better at leadership than we are right now.

That’s precisely what the best leaders have decided: they’ve said “Regardless of how good a leader I am now, I want to get better and I’m willing to learn how.”

Leaders then are not born. They are learning a craft, one which takes a whole career to master. The ‘best’ leaders are not those who are most skilled, but rather those who are most committed to self-improvement.

Anthony Mitchell is the chief potential officer at Bendelta.

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