Note: Proudly Co-Authored with my teammate, JC Glick.
“Who has the right stuff to lead?”
A fine question posed by Jack and Suzy Welch in this recent article: Are Leaders Born or Made? Here’s What’s Coachable – and What’s Definitely Not.
We read the article with interest, looking forward to gaining new insight, new perspective, and maybe even new practices to use when developing leaders. Our team believes that leaders are developed over time, not born with an innate ability to lead. For this reason, we expected a compelling case stemming from Mr. Welch’s many years at GE, and Mrs. Welch’s experience in journalism and business writing.
Unfortunately, and disappointingly, what we got was a tepid (at best) review that insinuated leaders are born with nothing more important than their predisposed view of the world and their place in it. A faulty idea of what leadership requires.
They suggest the following as essential traits for leadership:
- First and most importantly, Leaders must have positive energy in good times and bad. It is hard-wired; you were either born with it or you weren’t.
- Next, Leaders must energize others to take any hill. Again, they claim this ability as an innate trait.
- Decision-making or, as they call it, “edge”. This, as they say, is a function of self-confidence to move quickly, demand accountability, and reward results.
- Talent to execute. Another function of self-confidence, something they suggest you cultivate as a Leader.
- And lastly, passion and a deep sense of caring. This is said to be hard-wired as well.
If you believe this list, 60% of being a leader is genetic. So, if you aren’t born with these traits, the hand you were dealt was a bad one. Good luck ever becoming a Leader. We think that this is absolute nonsense – and actually detrimental to the development of leaders.
Here’s what we say: Leaders cannot be boiled down to a set of inherent traits. All leaders are different, and all types of leaders can be successful. Leadership is developed. If 60% of good leadership in what you are born with, then we are in serious trouble in the leadership world!
But, let’s stick with the original question, because based on our experience (in the business world and in combat), it’s a valid one: “Who has the right stuff to lead?”
Jack and Suzy say, “Getting the answer right can drive an organization’s culture and performance to new levels. Getting it wrong can too — downwards.” We agree. No argument that culture is the lifeblood of an organization and leaders are the keepers of the culture.
They initially rule out intelligence, integrity, and emotional maturity as givens for a good Leader. Fair enough; we won’t touch those either. However, we don’t think that those words are simple ones – what type of intelligence is required Is honesty more important than integrity?I If emotional maturity is essential, does it also mean that age matters? All important questions, but we don’t wish to quibble with the Welches, as these are philosophical questions, and probably not much use to the average practitioners of leadership
So, back to the question: “Who has the right stuff to lead?”
Let’s start with what Jack and Suzy considered hard-wired and unchangeable, essential, and what is in our DNA: Positive energy in good times and bad.
Now, we don’t want to discount the value in being positive, but are we saying that unless you are an optimist, you can’t be a good leader? How can we negate the folks that are pragmatic and adapt to changing situations – would we call them “positive” because they adapted? The idea of positivity implies you have to be “up” all the time, and that is just not true.
Science has made it very clear that leaders tend to have an internal locus of control, or a feeling that they control desired outcomes. However, there is something stronger that is vital for good leadership.
Ideally, a true Leader evokes care. Care for the mission. Care for the vision. And, most importantly, care for the people whom he or she leads, and resources to be successful. This care, we call love.
And we believe that a Leader cannot lead what he or she does not love.
Love, in this case, is not romantic. Rather, it is a deep affection that, at its core, is acceptance. Acceptance of those around you: for their strengths, for their limitations, and for who they are as people. This isn’t about being positive – it is about caring.
This love is shown through action. It’s the baseline requirement that makes values stronger, decisions clearer, and time spent together meaningful.
Loving your mission, your vision, and those who you lead leaves no room for betrayal, dishonesty, or malicious intentions. And it dives much deeper than just be able to energize, or motivate, people to do what you ask of them. This love is essential; otherwise, energy can seem inauthentic – “rah – rah” nonsense that is hard to believe and difficult to get behind.
Just like positive and energy were essentially linked in the Welch’s article, allow us to link love with empathy for the second essential trait.
Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is largely learned through upbringing and life experiences. It’s a feeling that we develop. It is learned. Are there folks who come to it more naturally, of course, but in our early development, we are not wired to have empathy – we don’t even understand the concept of sharing until we have completed five years of life. We are ego centric beings – not bad, not good, but definitely focused on self. We either learn empathy or we don’t.
It’s empathy kicking in when we feel for our comrade struggling with issues at home. It’s empathy that allows us to feel the mental anguish from our teammate after he misses the big shot in the big game. In a good sense, it’s the capacity to feel unbridled joy for our team member when she is promoted to the next level.
In hard times, positive energy only knows how to ask: “Why are you feeling this way?” Love puts its arm around you and says nothing. It understands. It isn’t sympathy; sympathy is passive. Empathy is active – it requires you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Now, for the first coachable trait: Edge.
This was described to be a function of self-confidence to move quickly, demand accountability, and reward results.
While decision-making is imperative, Leaders would be better off to be curious. And while self-confidence is important, we believe self-awareness drives the curiosity to seek what your people believe to be mission-critical components of your process.
Fast, demanding, and incentive-based leaders are out of shape leaders. Curiosity allows leaders to slow down without losing time, foster accountability, and inspire results.
Like love and empathy, curiosity is a learned skill. Edge is a buzz-word, a bumper sticker. We all imagine someone saying “That leader has edge”. As our chest bursts forward and we look high and away, at that imaginary eagle in the sky. Nonsense! I don’t want my leaders to have “edge;” I want them to be curious – that tells me they will make better decisions, act with better information, and move not with self-assuredness, but with collective assuredness – a knowledge that his or her organization can succeed.
Moving on to talent to execute, the ability to get things done.
By all definition of the word talent, which is natural aptitude or skill, it would seem to be a genetic predisposition.
Leaders have a responsibility, and are accountable, to help their people cultivate new aptitudes and refine existing skills. But Leaders cannot teach talent.
Competence may have been the word that the Welches were appealing to, in which case we would agree that Leaders need baseline competence or capability in their designated arena. But to say Leaders need talent to resource their people to be successful is not accurate.
As combat leaders, we led people that were far more capable than us – we were competent leaders, but they knew the “job” better than we did. Hopefully, through training and leadership, we made them better, but they were the ones that had the learned ability. Aptitude only makes learning easier of more difficult; it does not equate to ability or capacity to lead.
And, finally, there’s passion — which, in this article, is articulated as “to care deeply, to sweat, to believe.”
We believe Leaders do not require passion. We believe that you save passion for things that can be passionate in return – we believe you save passion for people, not things. Passion in leaders for anything other than their people creates a loss of priorities and perspective that almost always degrades from mission accomplishment.
We aren’t saying you shouldn’t believe in what you are doing, and we certainly want you to like what you do, but we think passion is the wrong trait for a leader. We believe that leaders require purpose.
Passion is egocentric, can change with time, and is brought to life through various contributions. A passion for technology would be a good example.
Purpose, on the other hand is utilitarian, constant, and is brought to life through sacrifice. Purpose is the intent or reason we choose to commit our lives to something greater than ourselves. You cannot have a purpose for technology.
But you can have a purpose to enhance the lives of millions by developing a new type of technology. That is not self-serving. It’s something you learn by experiencing life and actively deciding to dedicate your life to that end.
Leaders induce every person connected with their team to perform his or her task with a degree of competence and enthusiasm measurably greater than what could be called their normal expectations.
Leaders do it with love, empathy, curiosity, and purpose.
And none of it is wired into your DNA. We can all learn these traits. We are all capable of not only leading, but being great leaders. We challenge you to identify how you display the traits we identify here in your leadership. Then try Jack and Suzy’s. Which ones make sense to you?