Thursday, 19 August 2010

Is leadership an inborn quality or can it be actually learned?

Leadership can unquestionably be regarded as one of the topics which during the last decade have mostly attracted the interest of HR professionals and management practitioners. Amongst the different subjects related to leadership, identifying whether and what differences actually exist between leadership and management and determining whether leadership is an inborn quality or an ability which can be learned, definitely represent the arguments most passionately debated by HR professionals, managers and academics.
Over the years, have indeed been formulated hundreds of leadership definitions; amongst these, it is particularly interesting and self-explanatory that articulated by Henry S. Truman, who defined leadership as the “ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” John Adair, who can be considered the leading British authority on the subject, maintained that “leadership, like all personal relations, always has something unknown, something mysterious about it.”
Leadership is indeed widely and unanimously considered as a crucial factor to long-term organisational success; notwithstanding, it apparently seems that there is a chronic shortage of this precious quality in the boardrooms of large and small organisations as well.
As mentioned earlier, leadership has been and can be actually defined in many different ways; it is indeed sorely likely that the HR professionals and managers of any organization would be able to provide their own view and definition of leadership. Despite individuals at large know what good leadership really is, these are usually unable to identify the origin and source it stems from. This is basically why one of the most recurrent questions about leadership is whether leaders are born or made.
Professor Abraham Zaleznic (of Harvard University) avers that effective leadership is not preordained and that it can be thus learned by exposing individuals to a number of relevant experiences. Albeit recognizing that developing individuals’ leadership abilities definitely requires and takes time, Zaleznic also suggests that accurate and well-designed training programmes can actually help individuals to develop their leadership potential.

According to the CIPD, people vary in their capacity for leadership: “a few have an inborn capacity (although even born leaders need to develop their leadership abilities further), some have none.”
Regardless of the circumstance that a company already has the right people or needs to recruit them from the external environment, in order to elicit, nurture and develop individual leadership abilities employees have to be in any case trained. Adair identifies seven crucial characteristics of a successful leadership course; it should be “simple, practical, participative, varied, enjoyable, relevant and short.”
The first place where to start investigating the reason for a general lack of good leadership, especially whether instinctive, natural leadership would not emerge, should be the learning environment, that is to say where leadership is usually nurtured and developed. More importantly, it could be particularly interesting also investigating what leadership courses do not habitually teach individuals about leadership.

This paramount quality is clearly not centred on concepts and theories about systems, measurements, budgets, controls and budgets controls. Notwithstanding, as often as not leadership courses tend to be indeed concerned with these topics, whereas paying lip service to the qualities and abilities which are much more tightly related with leadership and which are as such necessary for an individual to gain the status of a truly, effective leader and help this to inspire other individuals by eliciting their motivation and offering them a clear-sighted vision of the business’ future.

The debates concerned with the identification of the differences existing between leadership and management traditionally lead to a number of ideas which can essentially be grouped into two main classes.

Are habitually defined leaders those who have followers, offer a vision and set direction,   facilitate decisions, are charismatic, use their heart, are proactive, influence others by selling, like striving, take risks and break the rules, use conflict, are concerned about what it is right, give credit and take the blame. By contrast, managers are supposed to have subordinates, seek objectives, plan details, make decisions, use their formal authority and their head, are reactive, persuade by telling, like action, minimize  risks, make and are compliant to rules, avoid conflict, are concerned of being right, take credit and blame the others.

Business leaders are usually trained in logic and analysis, which in general are not obviously useless capabilities, but an indispensable skill for an effective leader is that of being capable of applying “emotional intelligence”, that is to say the ability to discern when things are true or otherwise and to find out when individuals are truly inspired or are just routinely carrying out their tasks.

Leaders need to be able to manage their own and others emotions and need to have the appropriate skills to do it. In these cases, logic and analysis cannot really provide any help.

Adair states that managers appeal to people's rational thinking, whereas leaders appeal to people's emotions.

Indeed, especially within the organizational settings, individuals tend to avoid emotions, or rather, to control and feign these in that expressing emotions is considered “unprofessional” at large. Whereas, by contrast, it is much truer the contrary, that is, it is “unprofessional” to suppress emotion or express it inappropriately.

When all “this emotion stuff” remains unexplored and unresolved in leadership sessions and groups, it invariably produces long-term tensions and political battles.

Albeit it can be unquestionably averred that in many cases leadership emerges as an inborn and innate quality, it cannot be denied that leadership skills, like vision and inspiration, can be also learned by individuals. In order to actually achieve this aim, that is to say help individuals becoming good leader or help these improving their leadership abilities, leadership courses must be craftily planned and designed and should also be provided according to a bespoke mode, rather than  be bought off the shelf.

In many leadership training programmes, models of leadership are firstly discussed and subsequently followed by practical exercises that logically analyse situations where things went right and wrong, the so-called “leadership game.” This actually is a pleasant approach, but more often than not what are habitually taught in these cases are the elements which underpin leadership, not its essence.

An additional likely effectual method, arguably the most effective method, is to train good leadership by means of coaching. A good coach can in fact successfully help individuals to develop the skills necessary and most appropriate to their work situation and hence help these to build the competencies which are actually critical to improve their performance.