by Marshall Goldsmith
It’s an age-old question: Are we influenced more by nature or nurture? Applied to leadership, the question becomes: Are great leaders born or made? It’s one of the most frequently asked questions in leadership development.
Let’s start with the definition of “leader.” My good 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 support from 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 they think of themselves as leaders (not to mention whether they are fantastic 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 conducted an extensive study on leadership development programs involving more than 86,000 participants in eight major corporations. Our findings were so conclusive that 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 them on a consistent basis (to check on progress) were rated as becoming dramatically better leaders—not in a self-assessment, but in appraisals from co-workers—6 to 18 months after the initial program.
Five ways to become a better leader
Leaders who participated in the same developmental programs and received the same type of feedback—but did not follow-up—were seen as improving by no more than random chance would imply. Here are some specific ways to increase your leadership effectiveness:
1. Get 360-degree feedback on your present level of effectiveness, as judged by co-workers you respect.
2. Pick the most important behaviors for change—those you believe will enhance your effectiveness as a leader—e.g., “become a more effective listener” or “make decisions in a timelier 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 your 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.