By: Stuart White 02-12-2021



The question of whether leaders are born or made has been around for as long as Moses when he parted the red sea and led his people to safety.  For this old ‘nature or nurture’ debate there is no definitive answer which has been successfully proven, that I am aware of, at least; though if they cannot be made, then my job as a leadership coach would be redundant and I ought to be investing my time in genetic research to identify genes that have these traits pre-programmed in DNA,  then flogging that to the market.

I feel that it is a dangerous myth that leaders are born and that there is a genetic factor to it all, a myth arising out of royal bloodlines and the divine right of kings.  As far as I am concerned, they are made, just like anything else, through hard work. Sure, there are some traits which leaders have that might make them more successful or more likely to assume leadership but for the most part leaders are shaped by their environments and what happens to them. Think of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela – there was nothing magical or mystical (once thought of as a prerequisite for great leadership) but what happened to them and their responses is what shaped their leadership. So, a combination of life experiences,  who and where they were and their mindset were what set them apart.

A leadership mindset involves having certain attitudes, beliefs and expectations that create the foundation of who you are, how you lead others, how you interact with and influence your colleagues and they change with the times, that’s for sure. In the last twenty years or so it has shifted from an autocratic ‘them and us’ style towards a more egalitarian and collaborative approach. Twenty years ago, businesses were operating in a relatively stable world, where change occurred at a much slower pace; the internet had only been mainstreamed for five years, remote working wasn’t as common as it is now; managers made most of the decisions, with little input from employees; they had full control, giving people clear direction on what they need to do, when to do it, and how to do it. The focus was on hard skills and getting tasks done.

Fast forward to today, and we live in a world driven by commercial and technological disruption. With change as a constant, leaders need to be both attuned to the impact of technology on their business and highly adaptable as a result. This new way of working has opened the door to innovation and creativity, which are crucial for organisations wanting to gain a competitive advantage. . The rules which once guided us - like working 9 to 5 - don’t work anymore.  It has also brought teamwork, productivity, meaning and purpose to every aspect of our work, which just so happens to be exactly what employees today are seeking.

And of course, there has been a change in the workforce and what they want and this has necessitated a shift away from hard leadership to soft leadership skills too. Leaders are more people-oriented than task-oriented. The impact of technology has also brought new challenges that triggered a change in how we lead and the recent rise of remote work has emphasized the importance of leaders trusting people to aim towards organisational goals without constant monitoring or guidance. 

The other major shift is towards the characteristics associated with authentic leadership which posits that as a leader, it's critical you have a strong sense of self, including your strengths, weaknesses, and values. It's impossible to demonstrate authenticity as a leader if you're unsure of who you are or what you stand for in the first place. By displaying both your strengths and weaknesses to your team, you're able to demonstrate that you have nothing to hide, and don't play games. In this way, you're better equipped to build trust among your team, and when your employee makes a mistake, she'll feel more comfortable admitting her error to you. Passive aggression, subtle messaging, and convoluted feedback have no place in leadership. To truly foster authenticity, it's critical you remain genuine, straightforward, and honest with your team. Let them know where they stand -- if they mess up, tell them.

Real transparency is being demanded (even if not always given).  Whilst years ago management fed you what they wanted, today transparency and honesty is being  encouraged from the leadership level. It is critical if you want your business to be successful.  This is well illustrated when Former President and CEO of Ford, Alan Mulally, began working at the company, he implemented a system in which business leaders would produce colour coded charts at each of their meetings -- green to signify success, red to signify failure. At the time, Ford was forecast to lose 17 billion that year. At the meeting, however, Mulally noticed every chart was green. He recognized that Ford's culture was one in which leaders hid problems and avoided transparency out of a fear for job safety. When at last one leader, handed over a chart with red on it -- due to a production issue -- Mulally began clapping. His reaction signified the concept that failure can be seen as an exciting opportunity for growth, and honesty should be always rewarded. The following week, he saw charts varying from green to yellow to red.  This was an opportunity for Ford to drive forward!

The point is, authentic leadership must start with you displaying behaviours you hope to see in your employees as well. If you aren't transparent and honest yourself, how can you expect your employees to come forward with problems when they arise?