In his book, “Executive Instinct,” Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School suggests that there may be a leadership gene — that some people are just driven to be in charge. But the University of Michigan’s Noel Tichy — in his book “The Leadership Engine” — declares that leadership style and abilities emerge from experience.
Yet another opinion comes from the former chief executive of a $40 billion business who claims that leadership is irrelevant — it’s all about designing the right employer contracts.
Is leadership born or built? What about the in-between position that says early childhood is an imprinting that’s hard to undo? That faction claims that unless the tendency to lead is learned early on, it’s not likely to happen later in life.
I say leadership can be taught. But then, I have a unique definition of leadership.
I think leadership is about managing energy, first in yourself and then in those around you. What this definition implies is that unless you are deeply committed to an outcome that others can engage in and understand, no amount of teaching will make you a leader.
Deep commitment implies clarity of vision — because leadership implies the question, “To what end?” A lack of vision is one of the two main reasons for a lack of leadership in the world. In my experience, most people are not clear about what they are trying to do; and getting rich off the backs of others, by the way, is not very motivating to everyone else.
So the first step is deciding what you want to do with your life and career. We can teach strategic thought processes, but only the individual can actually go through with them. Since attitude and style are contagious, you must interact with others who possess energy and clarity of purpose, or else your influence on them will be deflected and dissipated.
If you have something you really want done, and you’re ready to commit your life to it, you can have an enormous impact on the world. If your goal is to be rich, powerful and famous, but you don’t know how — look out. Type I leaders are in the game for their own rewards. Type II leaders are in it for what they want to build. In today’s culture of extraction — where the rich take from the poor — Type I leaders are common, and increasingly distrusted and shunned.
Type II leaders are more rare and in more demand.
So, step one to becoming a leader? Clarify your purpose in life and, by extension, what your vision is for your organization, regardless of your current position. If you do that, you will be able to participate in strategic conversations when the opportunities arise.
And beware of mission statements like this one: “We deliver world-class goods and services that delight our customers beyond their expectations and give our investors an above-industry average return.” A committee cobbled that bland and uninspiring statement together. In contrast, British Aerospace created a mission statement that is direct, powerful, inspiring and relates to every employee: It reads: “We protect those who protect us.”
I fear that too many experiences in life push that kind of simple, powerful clarity out of us. The danger is not so much that we can’t teach leaders; rather the danger is that so many organizations pound leadership principles out of us as well. Don’t be one of those.
Find your vision before you die. Find one for your organization. Find something you can devote your professional life to, and then let that work in you until you’re vibrating with energy and enthusiasm — and you’ll find a way to get others to go along for the ride.
James G. Clawson is the Johnson & Higgins Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. He is co-teaching the executive education course, “Power and Leadership: Getting Below the Surface,” from April 6 -11, 2014.