Leadership, Nature vs. Nurture

Posted on May 19, 2017

“It’s not about being power hungry but about being comfortable with power”

Nature vs nurture: What makes a good leader?

Are leaders born or made? It’s a perennial question and one that is often debated. In reality, the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

According to Dr Colm Foster, director of executive education at the Irish Management Institute and an expert on leadership and emotional intelligence, everyone’s leadership can be developed.

“But some people are just more naturally suited to it,” Foster says. “And if you provide someone with the right learning experiences, you can accelerate that growth. For organisations, early career leadership experience for talent makes a huge difference to where they end up 10 years later.”

Organisational headache

A report published last year by Right Management, an arm of the listed HR consultancy firm Manpower, indicated that leadership development was a major headache for companies. Its findings showed that 87 percent of employers did not feel they had the future leaders necessary to fill critical roles.

“In many organisations, we still see future leaders selected on gut-feel, contacts, time in the job or simply right place, right time. It’s clear this model isn’t working,” said ManpowerGroup executive vice president Mara Swan when the report was published.

What constitutes good leadership can vary somewhat by sector. The skills required will also vary depending on whether you are steering your own business or someone else’s, according to Broadly Speaking’s founder, Margaret E. Ward.

In a traditional organisation, for example, a person who “wants to rock the boat and change things” might find it hard to rise to the top of the food chain. However, Ward explains that some companies are deliberately hiring that founder personality type, so-called ‘intrapreneurs’, in an effort to shake up company culture.

“There are some skills you are born with; not being risk averse, for example,” she says. “That founder personality I think is someone who rebels a little, who is always thinking of ways to do things more effectively.”

Developing skills

Having a risk-taking nature is not enough though. “You are born with that, but then you need to develop the leadership skills to deliver on a vision,” Ward says.

While Foster agrees that the types of people who rise to the top will vary by industry, he highlights three common traits that most leaders share: a need for power, a need for affiliation and a need for achievement.

“The first one is not about being power hungry but about being comfortable with power,” he says.

The second, he says, is about building relationships and being “broadly emotionally intelligent”. “It is about influencing, persuading, having the ability to build coalition and connect people to a vision,” he says. “That’s a skill.”

You can’t be too much of a people-pleaser though. “You need a bit of steel in you so that, when you need to, you can make the hard decisions and put the business first,” Foster says.

Goal driven

Those with strong leadership potential tend to be internally driven when it comes to achieving goals, according to Foster. “Successful leaders don’t need external endorsement,” he says.

Good leaders are self-aware too, he says. “They don’t feel threatened; they want to develop others and they delight in the achievements of others,” he explains.

Interestingly, he believes the demands on leaders could shift substantially in the coming years to accommodate a changing workforce. “Millennials want a different style of leadership, they want coaching and mentoring,” he says.

Being a true leader though is about more than making it all the way to the corner office with a view.

“Not everyone in a senior position is a leader,” Foster says. “A title doesn’t make you a leader. It is what you do and how you act, not what people call you or the size of your office that counts.”

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