Real Life Leading #4: “Can anyone be a leader?”
“Can anyone be a leader?” This is a very common question that is asked, both by current leaders and future leaders, and I think it is an excellent question to explore here. The short answer to this simple-seeming question is a very resounding YES, anyone can be a leader, though not everyone will be a leader in the same mold. More importantly, every single one of us will be a leader at some point in our lives, and so let’s take a look at what this question is really getting at, and then we’ll better understand the answer.
Typically, when someone asks this question, the assumption is something along the lines of “True leaders are born, not made,” or that there are certain leadership traits or characteristics that cannot be taught or learned; one either has them, or one doesn’t. I believe this view is false, though it is not without merit. That is, it has been obvious throughout history that there are certain leadership traits that some people naturally possess while others do not have these same qualities. At different periods, this may have meant physical stature (think George Washington, who was about six feet tall at a time when most men stood at about 5’8”) or a commanding ‘presence’ (whatever that means) despite a lack of height (think Napoleon Bonaparte, who was around 5’3-5’6” and who was mocked with the nickname “The Little Corsican”). Physical stature is obviously something that cannot be taught, and so there is a reason why people ask the question about whether or not anyone can become a leader. If stature was the measure of leadership, then the answer would be different. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am 5’3.5” tall, and so I fully believe that a person can be an impactful leader even if they do not immediately command respect through their stature.)
Other characteristics that people think of as natural ‘leadership’ traits are things such as a gift for public speaking (“the gift of gab” it is often called), the ability to easily form relationships (think of people who have “never met a stranger”), or the ability to influence others more easily than other people (“people just gravitate toward them”). Now, all of these are excellent qualities to have as a leader, and it is certainly true that to possess these traits would be beneficial to a leader. However, what most people don’t realize is that, other than physical stature, almost every leadership characteristic is something that can be learned and improved upon.
Is everyone naturally a gifted speaker? No. But through work, practice, and help, everyone can become more comfortable speaking in front of others. Is it easy for everyone to form new relationships personally or professionally? Of course not. But again, through practice, through learning, and through overcoming fears, everyone can become more comfortable in making new relationships. Same goes with being able to influence and encourage other people, too.
Here’s the bottom line: not only can anyone become a leader, everyone WILL be a leader at some point. We won’t all be CEOs or pro sports coaches, or military commanders. But at some point, almost everyone will be a father or mother, a husband or wife, a teacher or coach (paid or volunteer), a manager or employee, an entrepreneur or investor. And the truth is that all of these are leadership roles that require us to learn new skills and grow as people. They all require us to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses so that we can, with self-awareness, bolster our strengths while acknowledging (and then working on) our weaknesses.
Back to the original question: can anyone be a leader? The answer, as we have seen, is a resounding and unqualified yes. However, we will not all be leaders in the same mold, nor will we be leaders with the same strengths and weaknesses. Some people really do have such a ‘presence’ that they instantly command whatever room they enter. Such people often have a great advantage when it comes to leadership, because they begin from a position of strength. However, I recently read an article that talked about how many children who show ‘leadership potential’ (as seen in the ability to influence others at a young age) often fail to fully develop as leaders simply because they took their natural gifts for granted. In doing so, they failed to fully hone those gifts, and they also failed to work on their weaknesses, because their natural gifts allowed them to ‘get by’ as a leader for so long.
As a coach, I see this all the time with athletes: there are many athletes who are gifted at such a young age that they never have to really work to improve. They’re just naturally better than most of their peers, so they stand out and dominate teams throughout their youth. Eventually, though, a strange thing happens: other kids grow; other kids outwork them in practice; other kids find their strengths and weaknesses and address these; and suddenly, the player who was dominant now finds him/herself as just another mediocre player who doesn’t understand why what used to be “good enough” doesn’t seem to work anymore.
The same thing happens to many people who show leadership potential at a young age and then fail to purposefully develop their leadership skills while also learning new ones. Fortunately, in leadership and in life, it is never too late to learn new skills and work on strengthening old weaknesses. Athletes will always eventually lose out to Father Time and the deterioration of their skills. But leaders can and should always be working to become better than we are.
This week’s practical application:
Write a quick list of your three biggest strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and pick one of each to work on this week. Then email me and let me know what you came up with and if there is anything I can do to help you.