Can You Learn To Be A Leader?


Is leadership a natural trait, or can you learn it?


From an early age, I wasn’t one to boss the kids around at Kindergarten and I had no inner yearning to be captain of the sports teams (however, Tennis was and remains a passion).

I was, of course, reasonably sociable and happy to contribute to any group that I was involved in, but I didn’t feel the urge to push myself to the front. My hand never shot up “me, Miss, pick me, me.”. In fact, quite the opposite, preferred to blend into the background.

Maybe you could say that I wasn’t a born leader. I often think about my career, and I would say that this has never proven a problem. Maybe the learning curve has been a little steeper at times, but many of the core skills and experiences that a leader needs in their “toolbox” can be acquired on the job.

In this article, I would like to consider the personality myth around “born” leaders and how people can learn to be leaders by putting their team first. There was a 2013 study by UCL which attempted to prove that British leaders such as Churchill and Thatcher were born great. However, the lead author had to concede that “the conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true.”

To start with, this personality myth is exactly that. Not all leaders need to be charismatic communicators like Steve Jobs, seat of the pants innovators such as Richard Branson or ruthless traders like Alan Sugar. You get the impression that they were always like that, but I believe it is far from a pre-requisite. There are lots of effective leaders who aren’t necessarily the loudest in the room.

Many are the last to speak, and many decide that their team is the one to drive the decisions – they merely provide the conditions in which that can happen. They facilitate the performance. It is all about their people. In his fascinating book “Leaders Eat Last” Simon Sinek points out how the principle cause of failure among organizations is the tendency to focus more on numbers and short-term results than we do on people.

When numbers are prioritized over people, the result is an organization where people simply don’t feel secure in their roles. If people don’t feel safe inside the company, they can’t possibly work together to face all of the never-ending external challenges. When someone focuses on providing “safety” for their people, for Sinek, that is the definition of a leader.

It is a definition that I feel a close affinity with, and I try to espouse many of his values in my daily work. Anyone can learn to put their people first, to truly care about them. It is a choice. Once that choice has been made, you have to let it become your raison d’etre. It is no longer about you – your team should always be at the front of your mind. Sacrificial leadership is the model I hope to emulate and follow. It’s a hard path but that’s the challenge. And that is what I love about leadership

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