Tuesday 12 November 2013

If I was not born with the gift of leadership then how can I become a leader? :: Three ideas to develop leadership skills despite not winning the genetic lottery!

Leadership is a much described and venerated subject. I have (on occasion) been approached by employees (co-workers, peers, direct reports etc.) seeking to understand the secrets of leadership and/or how to develop characteristics that would allow them to become a leader. Some would then also raise the point that they felt that they were on the back-foot as they were not a “natural born leader.”

Despite my natural temperament or inclination, I see tremendous danger in freely dispensing “fizzy” ideas or notions on how to become a leader to the employee standing in front of me as there is some merit in understanding “nature vs. nurture” i.e. the debate on what contributes to human development – is it “genetic inheritance” (nature) or is it “environmental factors” (nurture). Most of us consider leadership as a choice between two extremes i.e. attribute leadership to either winning the genetic lottery or to having been exposed to the right experience and learning while growing up! Frankly, my own assessment is that it is a function of both. Research on the biology behind leadership with a focus on the role of genes suggests that “what determines whether an individual occupies a leadership position is the complex product of genetic and environmental influences.”

Before I go any further I feel that we should understand what leadership is and why I am using this word rather than using the much understood (and experienced) word - 'manager'? In simple terms, a manager is one who plans, organises and coordinates; whereas a leader inspires and motivates. [Watch this video on Warren Bennis’s perspective on the differentiation]. A great definition of leadership is an articulation from Kevin Kruse“Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” 

Management literature has many theories of leadership and most frameworks that I have studied or examined gave me the distinct impression that they are designed to help one become a better manager rather than a leader (or a better leader for that matter!). For me leadership (in the corporate context) is achieved after you have become a good manager! Understand this simple reality – “Being a good manager is the best platform to become a leader!” In the work-context anything else is simply inconceivable.

Most management text-books and leadership frameworks tend to codify activities and provide a structure or theory to understand leadership. For me leadership is more abstract than that. It is an amalgam of characteristics and traits. The need of the hour is to understand that despite all the monikers and labels leadership is simply about a humane way to balance the maximisation of profit (resource management with humans being treated as an element of production) while maintaining a focus on leading humans (which is always ambiguous and ethereal). Key words that come to my mind for how I would identify or label a leader are individuals that - imbue positivity, inspire others, display compassion yet remain assertive, ensure a sense of justice & fairness in all dealings, empower & develop their followers while maintaining a sense of wholeness & integrity. Leadership is not about physical attributes. Some of the leaders I look up to are not six feet tall nor can they speak English any differently than many of us! It is what they say and what they do rather than how they say things or how they do things! [But I must admit that Charisma is commonly linked to physical attributes in any discussion on executive presence!].

Leadership is not only about the person being called a leader. It is also about the context or situation in which people display leadership skills. Hitler was a leader but in hind-sight we would shudder to use the term leader to describe him. My advice would be that one establishes what works for them rather than try to create a theory of leadership to fit into. You are what you are due to constraints in your genes but don’t let that fool you into believing that you cannot or should not invest in developing leadership skills. Many of us need help to discover our own talent and also can do with advice on “dialling-up” or "dialling-down” specific behaviours.

I must also add the simple truth from my corporate experience – "some things can be studied but some things come from work-experience (i.e. over time)!" There is a reason why a majority of leaders (in the corporate world) have grey-hair! Fortune magazine spends an inordinate amount of time on profiling “30 under 30” individuals and embellishing on how these individuals have contributed to society and the world. I respect the individuals on the list but never forget that they are outliers (i.e. extremes) and more aspirational than inspirational! For the vast majority there is a need to work on leadership by observing leaders closer to home rather than reading about them on paper!

So for those of you who thought that becoming a leader is as easy as applying shampoo ("apply..lather…rinse…repeat”) then you will be sorely disappointed. It is much harder as the fundamental thing you have to change is! So irrespective of your genetic composition I would advise to focus on three ideas (areas) to become a leader or to move towards becoming a leader. [There are many other things one could review in the quest to becoming a leader and Kendra Cherry provides some broad meaningful guidance on this].

Idea # 1 : Understand yourself better as a person and as an employee

One of the biggest investments I have made is to try to better understand my psychology, personality, habits and mannerisms. There are many ways to do this and it is best that you figure out a way to have your personality type assessed and get clarity on what defines you. My understanding of myself came by undertaking common tests such as MBTI, DISC or ESCI. Along my corporate journey I have had the opportunity to see how my responses were changing along the way (by testing over multiple sittings over time). This allowed me to understand how I was reacting and how I was expected to react given the changes in my corporate profile and position in the organisational hierarchy. This advice works better for those who have access to such tools otherwise start with finding some free online assessment tools.

Another important exercise is to be able to describe yourself by spending a lot of time dong an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. This is critical as I have used my strengths to mitigate my weaknesses. This is the truth inherent in becoming a leader. Many of us are so caught up with focusing on our weaknesses or areas for development that we forget that we can leverage our inherent strengths to minimise or mitigate our weaknesses! 

To understand myself better I have invested substantial amounts of time and effort in figuring out what makes me ‘tick’ and how to leverage the same to develop leadership skills.

Some fundamental questions that I asked myself were:

  • Do I know my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What strengths will help me in becoming a leader or role model?
  • What weaknesses will detract from my persona as a leader?
  • What strengths can mitigate my weaknesses? How do I go about investing in this aspect?
  • How do I compare to other leaders? What can I leverage? What can I do more off? What can I do less off?

The answers to these questions will lead to some serious introspection. The biggest benefit I have got from this is not only in developing skills for leadership but got an honest understanding of how my career is likely to progress given some of the negatives that I have, but more importantly given me a more mature understanding of how I have failed to mitigate or correct some of my behaviours over time. We are all not perfect BUT not all of us have learned to respect or appreciate what we have and end up spending a significant part of our lives acting and behaving opposite to who we really are and then react negatively when the 'beautiful career map that we have carved out for ourselves fails to materialise or remains elusive!

Idea # 2 : Get constructive criticism and guidance from others

I am aware that it is human nature for employees) to rate themselves far better than what they actually are. To help mitigate this I always try to validate my responses to the questions under Idea # 1 (see above) by actively seeking out constructive input, advice and criticism from peers and my manager(s). It was not an easy task as this requires immense maturity to accept input into how to become a better leader (which by inference means being a better person!). 

One aspect that worked for me was the ability to garner relationships with a series of mentors to whom I looked up to give me honest guidance leveraging their own experience in the corporate world and who I used a sounding board to gain clarity. I remind you this is not easy. I share a key insights that I got from a mentor to show how difficult it can be. My mentor stated - “You will need to develop strong listening skills”. He then  gave examples of how I could have reacted better or done better based on his experience and understanding of me. I thought about this and realised that that followers consider the skill of a leader to listen as an important sign of leadership. Just hearing someone out can establish you as a leader. This is one area that I am still working on as it requires patience and the ability to not extrapolate or infer too much while a person is talking. You have to actually listen carefully to pick up the emotional cues being sent. Those who become great leaders are great because they pick up and react to those cues, which hits the hearts of those who eventual become the followers to such a leader.

Another reality is that you need to have identified mentors who are leaders in their own right. This is easier said than done as most mentors would also want to invest in individuals that are worth investing. Ponder about this and you will realise that your actions need to make you 'attractive' enough to invest in. I have learnt a lot about leadership from leaders and by observing leaders. Ray Blunt captures this accurately in this advisory – “At the end of the day, it is leaders who grow leaders: not just someone with the title, but leaders of high character and with a deeply held core purpose who intentionally and patiently give back their hard-earned wisdom. The best conveyers of truth are those leaders who are formed over time in the crucible tests of power. They are those with the commitment as well as the knowledge, opportunity, and capacity to grow the next generation of leaders conveying their lessons of experience—tacitly.”

Idea # 3 : Learn to mentor and coach other employees

Along my corporate journey I also realised that there was a huge difference in performance managing someone vs. coaching or mentoring someone. Great leaders not only perform efficient performance management and appraisals of individuals but have the ability to nurture through mentoring and coaching. This is an element that I believe establishes great leaders from the inside rather than through a hierarchical position on any organisational chart.

Coaching and mentoring are used interchangeably but are two different concepts. Understanding their meaning and differentiation is necessary as the two require very different skills on the part of the Mentor or Coach. Coaching is…"a process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve. To be a successful a Coach requires a knowledge and understanding of process as well as the variety of styles, skills and techniques that are appropriate to the context in which the coaching takes place" Eric Parsloe. Mentoring is..."off-line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking" Clutterbuck & Megginson.

There are many employees who are satisfied with their managers 
(I would want to emphasise the difference between manager and leader so only using the term manager) and in employee engagement surveys I am always focused on understanding the extreme scores that allow for greater learning i.e. those scores that fall into the two extremes (either 'very satisfied' or 'very dissatisfied'). Interestingly, I noticed that those employees that are very satisfied with their managers also used specific terms to describe their managers as a 'benchmark for others'; 'passionate'; 'true leader'; 'exemplifies leadership'; 'great person'. It is my belief that there is a far larger proportion of employees who resign their bosses rather than resign from their jobs (“When employees resign, the top reason for their resignation is their relationship with their manager. People leave managers, not jobs or employers”) hence relevant to focus on this aspect!

I realised that those managers getting better scores on management surveys or those employees showing better engagement appeared to be a function of how much mentoring and coaching a manager was doing with the employee rather than the routine performance management aspects of the relationship.

After five years of formal mentoring and coaching I honestly feel that the skills associated gave me with the ability to become more aware of 

  1. How to ask meaningful questions when seeking to understand a situation
  2. How human interaction shapes perception
  3. How employees react to their managers
  4. How I could proactively benchmark my abilities as a manager and leader to what was being identified as best practice by employees
  5. Identify those elements of professional interaction that motivated and created organisational commitment as well as job satisfaction in employees
  6. How to relate and articulate the vision and ideals of my organisation to employees (without fear of retribution or ridicule)
  7. Ability to see the bigger picture of how I could contribute to my organisation through the coaching experience. 

Put this to practice and I am sure that one would start seeing the transition to becoming a leader BUT note that this requires time and effort. 

Hope the above helps in your leadership journey. Best wishes!


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  1. Deepak, a wonderful, reflective post - thank you. Your 3 ideas are excellent - and it all begins with a deep understanding of ourselves -
    Thank you for extending the discussion on Linkedin
    Best regards,

  2. Sir, very informative...its kicks our thought process on the leadership & being a leader. One thing I would like to know, it may sound stupid but still, how to get / find a good mentor & coach. I personally feel this is very crucial in a development, be it personal or professional. I sometimes feel that I`m lacking a mentor & coach...your thoughts or inputs sir..

    1. Sunu...this is a good point. It is not easy to find Mentors or Coaches in the work arena without showing courage and without having established yourself as worthy of being mentored or coached. Start with your own manager first and ask him or her to give you constructive feedback on how to be better. When you get a compliment then also seek an area of improvement? When you have gathered enough courage see if you can approach stronger peers and other managers to act as a sounding board to some of your concerns/musings. If you need to ping some more ideas off me then send me a message via LinkedIn and I will respond.

  3. very genuine .And filled with lot of personal experiences .Thanks for the beautiful post.