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Leaders: Are They Born or Made? Updated

Posted by Ben Whittacker-Cook on 15/04/2021 10:15:00 AM

This is a repost from a previous blog written by Liz Wotherspoon, Chief Executive of Growth at The Icehouse, was first published in NZBusiness Magazine in 2018 and is as intuitive and relevant now as it was then.

leader blog

There’s immense pressure on leaders to perform, inspire and action in the as leadership behaviour can impact how teams perform and, of course, the rate of success within a business. At the first quarter of 2021 leaders are self-assessing how they performed around COVID and what they need to do better.

Let’s start with the age old question: are leaders born or made?

I take the view that it is absolutely possible to develop strong leadership qualities. Leadership is a process, not a position, and developing as a leader is a personal journey that requires commitment, self-awareness, effort and regular reflection.

If you accept that good leaders are made, then the question that warrants focus is: what are the qualities of strong leadership and how can these be developed?

The pace of change and momentum in business is incredible and the environment for leaders and managers is increasingly complex and unpredictable.

The challenges that leaders face are rapidly evolving but the ways that businesses develop leaders may not be changing enough. A study a couple years ago by the Center for Creative Leadership in the US highlighted that “The majority of managers are developed from on-the-job experiences, training and coaching/mentoring; while these are all still important, leaders are no longer developing fast enough or in the right ways to match the new environment.”

Our approach at The Icehouse, and in the work we do with owner operated businesses, is to create learning environments that allow plenty of time for reflection and for connecting and networking with other leaders.

Leaders of today need to be more equipped to deal with complexity and more comfortable with ambiguity. We believe that leaders need help with making sense of the world and we are a lot more focused on developing mind-set and enabling leaders to expand their way of thinking. They need to be more adaptable than ever, more self-aware and more collaborative.

Personal responsibility

So what does this mean for businesses and business operators in terms of the challenges ahead?

While companies absolutely have a responsibility to provide their leaders and managers with opportunities for development, and they need to be experimenting with new approaches, people need to have higher levels of responsibility when it comes to their own development and learning.

Businesses and individuals need to understand the shifts we are seeing in what is required to lead effectively. The skills, abilities and behaviours that leaders need have not changed radically nor has the need to be able to both ‘manage’ and ‘lead’.

What has changed, however, is the mindset required and the way leaders need to think.

Leaders need greater capacity to think differently or ‘bigger’. Businesses should define and be transparent about what good leadership looks like in their organisation and they need to drive collective behaviour in a clear and consistent manner.

The businesses that are winning are the ones that have good leaders, not just at the top but at all levels, and that actively put time and resources into developing leaders.

I can’t remember who said it, but I have repeated it many, many times to owners and leaders in our customer businesses, ‘leadership isn’t about what happens when you’re there, it’s about what happens when you’re not.’

When promoting people into positions with greater leadership accountability, businesses need to be careful not to fall into the trap of taking their best technical or functional person, promoting them into a leadership role and expecting them to know how to lead effectively.

The attributes that made them a high performer in one role may be of little or no help in their new role or worse yet, may actually work against them.

Don’t take the sink-or-swim approach, be disciplined and deliberate in the support and development you give them to build the new skills and perspectives they need to succeed.

The signs to look for

Finally, on the topic of identifying potential leaders in your business, I guess there are signs you can look for in terms of some common traits.

Watch for people who step up, show initiative and take accountability.

Look for people who demonstrate courage but have humility – are confident but not arrogant and don’t necessarily need to be recognised for every good thing they do.

Consider people who can multi-task and are comfortable with change and ambiguity; those strong communicators and the people who are really engaged and focused.

People with some or all of these qualities show promise.

You as a leader

To lead is to make a choice. I would encourage anyone in business to be able to describe their ideal self as a leader. What would you be good at? How would you like to be described by others and to be more effective in the future? What needs to change or what do you need to do differently?

Then make the choice to do something about achieving this.

For information on how capability building programmes, workshops and advisory can help your business, click here.

For more business ownership and leadership advice, check out more of our blogs.

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Topics: Leadership, Business Strategy & Planning, Liz Wotherspoon

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