Maybe she’s born with it – but probably not…

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

I know you’re looking at this thinking, “Another discussion about whether a person is born with leadership skills or can they learn it? Hasn’t this been discussed enough? Why should I read this…again?” I would counter with yes, it has been argued to the point of exhaustion, however, with each experience we learn new ways of looking at situations and discover different ways to discuss them.

As said, this has been covered, and there are views on either side. However, when one peruses the literature on the topic, it is not difficult to see it leans one way. Most people interviewed on the subject assume that leaders are born. These people believe that some enter into the world possessing a natural ability to lead, and all others do not. Further, they think that there is not really much you can do for those who are not born with it.

Truth be told, most studies on the subject over the years show there really is more of a bell curve on leadership capability. Some people indeed are “born with it.” Others, on the other side of the curve, are just not going to lead the troops into battle. However, the majority of the people out there fall somewhere in the middle, and that’s where the potential lies.

There was one point in my career I lost nearly my entire management staff. We were going into a busy season, and I had to fill those positions quickly. Additionally, my part-time pool to pull from was made up of fresh faces who barely knew how to do the essential functions of the job. Having no other choice, I consulted with my assistant, and we made the hard decisions of whom we would bring onto the management staff.

We felt both of these ladies had the potential to work well as leaders within the business. One from experience in the educational system, and the other from her attitude and willingness to jump in where needed. What we found were two completely different views on what it meant to take on a leadership position.

The individual we had the most hopes for due to her background in education turned out to be the bigger surprise. While we had high expectations for her ability, we were mistaken. This person was a fantastic employee in a lesser role. She was great with customers, helped her younger co-workers, and worked hard on day-to-day tasks – all the reasons we promoted her. However, once put in a leadership role, all of that seemed to end.

She maintained a great relationship with the others, continued to help customers, but show little to no interest in advancing. Any occasion we used as an attempt to teach her thinks left us frustrated. As soon as we began teaching, she tried to cut us off, “Yep, uh-huh, got it,” whatever she could do to move on. It has taken her time to get past a lot of mistakes, but she has gotten to a point where she can function as a minimal manager.

This is in stark contrast to the other individual we promoted. She is a young woman with no managerial experience. We knew this going in, but we saw something in her we thought we could work with. While she struggled with the operational aspects more and had no understanding of how to lead the team, she was and continues to be, teachable. She asks questions, looks for advice, watches what her leaders do, and genuinely cares about those she has been entrusted to lead.

This individual possesses two of the many traits required in leadership learning – the ability to adapt, and the desire to grow and learn. While I cannot deny there are those who are born with skills relevant to leadership, I also believe much of what is needed to lead others can be learned. Even those born with these traits can benefit from being teachable. I know I have, and this is what makes her a benefit to the team.

When we begin our search for members of our leadership teams, we have to look past credentials. Of the two we promoted, one seemed much more apt to perform in the new position than the other. However, what we found was heart was worth much more than experience. When hiring or promoting, we have to remember that the best person for the job is not necessarily the right person for the job. People, born leaders or not, will lead when they are empowered to do so. How they lead will be determined by how much time you invest in molding their leadership. This includes spending in their correction. We as leaders must have the managerial courage to mentor not only the ones with pedigree but those who maybe don’t even believe in themselves.


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