Busting common leadership myths: ‘Excellent leaders are born, not made’

In a recently published piece by Forbes, contributor Ekaterina Walter turned a critical eye to clichés that are often cited when discussing how to be a successful leader. These were:

  • “Leaders should have no off-switch”
  • “Great leaders are always in the spotlight”
  • “Good leaders have all the answers”
  • “The best leaders work smarter, not harder”

Another look at our series detailing the often-cited clichés associated with leadership, we’ll be taking a look at the idea that excellent leaders are born, not made. This assertion implies that success at the corporate level is predetermined, and leaders either have the X factor or they don’t.

Certainly, some candidates for leadership positions emerge as better fits for the roles than others. Executive search and recruitment firms may differentiate these front-runners from their less-qualified counterparts due to their superior skill sets, their expansive experience in similar positions or industries or simply their personalities.

Indeed, noted Democrat & Chronicle contributor Amanda Altman in a piece detailing her experience at September’s Inc. Women’s Summit, held in New York City, Inc. Magazine’s Eric Schurenberg opened the conference by listing traits typically exhibited by the business leaders of today. These included empathy, vulnerability, humility, inclusiveness, generosity, balance and patience – characteristics one might argue that a person is either predisposed toward exhibiting or not. With this in mind, there may be some merit to the idea that some people are innately better equipped for effective leadership than others, but that doesn’t mean those lacking these qualities are automatically a lost cause.

Solving the problem of weak leadership

One thing’s for sure – weak leadership exists. A piece by Forbes contributor John Baldoni pointed to the results of a recent study by Development Dimensions International (DDI) in partnership with the Institute for Human Resources and HR.com, which zeroed in on the causes and effects of subpar leadership. Specifically, nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) of the 300 HR managers who took part in the survey said ineffective leadership caused lower rates of engagement, while two-thirds (65 percent) highlighted lower productivity and 59 percent observed higher churn. Respondents faulted “lack of interpersonal skills” as weak leaders’ No. 1 failing, followed by a dearth of “listening, empathizing and involvement” and a “lack of strategic skills.”

“Many times, failure is due to lack of motivation or personality that no amount of training will change,” said DDI’s Richard Wellins, lending credence to the born-and-not-made hypothesis.

That said, some leaders are merely diamonds in the rough – they have the potential to shine, but they just need to be polished first. With respect to the survey’s findings, upper level management, HR personnel and others responsible for spearheading this type of development should place a particular priority on the issues delineated above.

“To correct such leadership deficiencies, it falls to organizations to make investments in leadership development but do it [in] ways that are individually focused as well as focused on the needs of the organization,” wrote Baldoni. “Organizations that I have studied offer a combination of internal programs that offer participants access to senior leaders as well as the opportunity to acquire new skills via action learning or job rotation.”

Leading by example

Indeed, mentorship can be extremely beneficial in terms of ensuring new or otherwise shaky leaders get on the right track.

“The best thing senior leaders can do is serve as role [models] of good leadership skills,” noted Wellins. “Toward that end, leaders must set the right example. They must show through their actions what it means to set clear expectations, follow through on commitments, put people in positions to succeed and most importantly hold themselves accountable for their actions.”

The verdict

Undoubtedly, all leaders are not created equal. For instance, some will be natural listeners, while others will have to actively work on paying attention to other people’s opinions and refraining from taking over a room. Certain traits – such as an unwillingness to learn or a lack of motivation to better oneself – might be deal-breakers in terms of cultivating leadership success, but often, leaders eager to improve will flourish with the right training and guidance.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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