Great Leaders Are Made Not Born

Harvard Business Review

January 14, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

This is one of the most frequently asked questions in all leadership development.

To begin with, let’s start with a definition of “leader.” My friend and mentor, Dr. Paul Hersey, defines leadership as “working with and through others to achieve objectives.” Given this definition, anyone in a position whose achievement requires the support of others can play the role of a leader.

I love this definition because it supports the philosophy of “leadership at all levels,” which is so critical in today’s world of knowledge workers.

Indeed, millions of people who are currently working with and though others to achieve objectives are already leaders. Whether think of themselves as leaders and whether they are fantastic leaders or disastrous leaders is another issue.

So can people who are already working to influence others become more effective leaders?

The answer is an unqualified “Yes.”

My partner, Howard Morgan, and I did and extensive study on leadership development programs involving over 86,000 participants in eight major corporations. Our findings were so conclusive they are almost impossible to dispute. Leaders who participated in a development program, received 360 degree feedback, selected important areas for improvement, discussed these with co-workers and followed-up with co-workers on a consistent basis (to check on progress) were rated as becoming dramatically better leaders — not in a self-assessment, but in the assessment of co-workers — six to eighteen months after the initial program. Leaders who participated in the same developmental programs — and received the same type of feedback — but did no follow-up were seen as improving no more than random chance.

Here are some specific suggestions to increase your leadership effectiveness:

1. Get 360 degree feedback on your present level of effectiveness — as judged by co-workers that you respect.
2. Pick the most important behaviors for change — those you believe will enhance your effectiveness as a leader (i.e., “become a more effective listener” or “make decisions in a timely manner”).
3. Periodically ask co-workers for suggestions on how you can do an even better job in your selected behaviors for change.
4. Listen to their ideas (don’t promise to change everything) and make the changes that you believe will further increase your effectiveness.
5. Follow-up and measure change in effectiveness over time.

Are leaders born or made? If you are working with and through others to achieve objectives, you are already a leader. Can you become a more effective leader? Definitely.