Leadership: Can anyone learn to be a great leader?
Can anyone learn to be a great leader? The short answer is, "No."
Despite the claims of many leadership trainers, you can't turn anyone into a great leader any more than you can turn anyone into a great pianist, a great cook, or a great author. Great leaders develop the same way that great performers in other fields develop.
To be great in any field, you need two things. You need some aptitude or talent. You need a combination of training and developmental experience to improve your ability to perform.
You need some aptitude or talent
To be a leader at any level, there are three things you must be able to do. You must be comfortable talking to other people about their behavior or performance. You must be willing and able to make decisions. And you should enjoy helping others succeed.
To rise to the highest level, you need more. You will need to develop your talent for understanding how business works. You won't be able to make good strategic decisions unless you understand the moving parts of your business and the dynamics of your marketplace.
You need the interest and the intellectual horsepower to understand the workings of the world and the possibilities of the future. As you move up the ladder of promotion you will need to see more and see farther than you have before.
You're never done improving the skills that use your basic aptitudes. Training can help.
Training can help but...
Training can help you develop basic skills. In your first leadership job, training can help you understand your new role. As your career develops, training can provide other benefits.
Training helps you make connections. You'll need a support system. The people who train you and the people you train with can be part of it.
As you rise, training can help you get a handle on new areas of skill and knowledge that you must master. But, training is never enough. You can only learn about leadership in the classroom. You learn leadership on the job.
Experience is a great teacher, but...
You will learn most of what you learn about leadership on the job. Depending on which study you read, and exactly how they define "on the job," it will be 70 to 90 percent of your learning. Experience is part of it, but you also need feedback and a way to concentrate your effort.
Experience is a waste of time if you don't learn from it and you won't learn from it without feedback. That includes feedback from your boss, your peers, your team members and also feedback from outsiders and from yourself.
Deliberate practice can accelerate your development. Deliberate practice concentrates on a specific skill, with feedback and multiple repetitions. The Marine Corps has new officers write hundreds of operations orders during training so that when the chips are down they can concentrate on the situation and not how to write the orders or what needs to be considered.
Development takes time.
Nothing is automatic. It would be nice if there was a leadership pill or magic spell that would automatically make you a great leader. But there isn't.
It will take you a year and a half to two years to be comfortable in your first leadership role. There's a lot to learn and internalize.
It will probably take you ten years to master the basic leadership art. First you will master individual skills. Then you will master the skills that make your team effective and develop your people. Then you will master the skills of developing other leaders.
You will learn to make good decisions about people and strategy. And you will learn to execute those decisions. Decisions without execution are impotent.
While this is going on you will develop your skills in other areas. You will develop your strategic sense as you extend your horizons. And all along the way you will combine learning with developmental experiences and feedback.
Can you become a great leader?
If you have the basic aptitude, the answer is "Yes." It will take work to develop those aptitudes and talents so you can deliver the easy-appearing performance that marks greatness. And it will take time. If greatness is for you, you'd better start now.
This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog.
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