Developing Leadership Is it innate or learned?


Leadership has been an issue of much debate and research over the past century. It has evolved from which was essentially an individual and trait based phenomena to what we currently know as distributed leadership (Edwards 2011). The individual however remains in the heart of the matter. Current studies have emphasised the importance of learning and cognitive approach for effective leadership (Northhouse 2010). Evolved research studies have laid down the importance of acquired skills as much as personality traits that exist within individuals to lead. One of the early criticisms of the trait theory was that leaders may find it difficult to adapt to changing roles and circumstances leading to the development of the "situational theory" (Edwards 2011). Emerging concepts of leadership emphasise on learning and propagate that leadership abilities can be developed and cultivated with training. However in order to develop oneself as a successful leader one needs to develop himself or herself as an individual first. This essay will discuss and analyse the possibilities of leadership development and the theories that propagate it and would explain how leadership development is linked to personal development.

Developing leadership:

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Leadership development is focused on developing the leadership abilities and attitudes of individuals.

People might be born with certain physical attributes to perform at the highest level like sport stars or artists, yet they also need to practice and training to make it to the top and maintain consistency. No one can dismiss the importance of coaches in soccer in spite of the raw talent that exists in a team. It requires a great deal of planning, training and mentoring to bring about the best in individual genius. Williams, 2005 has put forth that leadership is a matter of mindset which can essentially be worked on and put into practice he has also highlighted high leaning and use of expertise as the need of managerial leadership competency. Similarly, not every individual is born with the ability to lead. Personal attributes can facilitate or deter a person's leadership abilities and require formalised programs for developing leadership competencies (Bennis 1989). Yet, everyone can develop their leadership effectiveness. However it requires a lot of conscious individual effort in order to achieve such development. As in the case of a football player with born physical attributes, leadership has also been ascribed to an individual's early life influence. Some are more gifted than others and are born with some special talents. Traits like; personality, intelligence, energy and intuition which are indispensible for a leader are characteristics people are born with (Levicki 2002). Looking for traits associated with effective leadership, researchers have cited attributes like resolute energy, foresight and great persuasive skills (Yukl and Lepsinger 2004). We have come across so many political leaders fighting against the odds and making people believe in their vision with impeccable conviction and resolute. Mahatma Gandhi is a perfect example of drive, foresight and persuasive skills. It has however not been ascertained the specific traits which could guarantee leadership success. According to Edwards, 2011, it is possible for managers to develop their leadership ability regardless of their gender and early life influences. Environmental factors play a key role amongst individuals as to how they develop themselves into leaders. A leader's problem solving abilities has a bearing on the effectiveness in solving organizational problems. Bennis, 1989 has also clearly stated that irrespective of the traits one might posses; it requires a great degree of personal effort and skill accumulation to propel an individual to a position of effective leadership.

Various training programmes and related learning effectively help leaders to understand the requisites of successful leadership. However, knowing what to do and doing what one knows are two entirely diverse outcomes. An estimated 15% of classroom training results in sustained behavioural change with in the work place (Metcalfe 2011).

Skill sets that can be developed to be an effective leader are discussed below;

Technical Skill-

Technical skills help organizations in realizing the actual product or service a company is designed to produce (Northhouse 2010). It is the knowledge or core competency in someone's specialised area and activity. Possession of such skills could be referred to as leadership of knowledge (Edwards 2011).

Mumford, Zaccaro, Harding et al., 2000 has suggested a skill based model based on five components such as; Competencies, individual attributes, leadership outcomes, career experiences and environmental influences.

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Human Skill-

Human or people skill is the ability to work effectively with colleagues in order to achieve organisational goals. It could be walking along with subordinates, mentoring them or working in tandem with other team members. It is about getting a right mix of one's own perspectives and also being aware of others view of things (Katz 1955). Leaders with human skills adapt their own ideas to those of others. By doing that they manage to build a culture of trust and mutual respect, which in turn results in a conducive work environment where employees feel comfortable working with the leader and get the encouragement to get involved. A leader with human skills is one who is sensitive to the motivational factors affecting the sub ordinates and is considerate of others' needs in his or her own decision making (Northhouse 2010).

Conceptual Skill-

It is the skill or ability to work on ideas and concepts. Leaders with conceptual skills bring about ideas that shape the future of the organisation as also the intricacies involved in bringing about the change (Northhouse 2010). This is critical to any organisation in creating a long term vision and strategic plan for future course of action. However conceptual skill is more relevant at the higher management levels (Edwards 2011).

The skills approach provides a structure for understanding the nature of effective leadership (Katz 1955). Mumford, Zaccaro,Harding et al.(2000) opine that an effective leadership's skill model contends that leadership outcomes are the direct result of a leader's competencies in problem solving skills, social judgement skills and knowledge. Each of the competencies include large repertoire of abilities and they can be learned and developed.

If we analyse the leadership style of business leader and investor Warren Buffet, he has shown tremendous expertise in all the leadership aspects discussed above. He has become an iconic figure by repeatedly proving his core expertise as an investor. Warren Buffett took the falls that any other leader has to take. He learned from his mistakes and turned his mistakes into a positive thing. Talking of human skills, Warren Buffett shares his leadership at all organizational levels and Buffett is empowered to share leadership responsibilities. Mr. Buffet's continual approach of analyzing both possible investment choices, market trends, and the ability to place management resources of the right caliber in the right position has consistently brought this investor to the forefront amongst peers and the marketplace.Warren Buffett has leadership in all three departments and one must have these traits to be a good business leader.

For a normal individual, it might require some events or a conscious effort so as to ignite the spark which can lead to development as a leader. The writer of the essay has benefitted from a close relationship with the managing director of a company who in turn was mentored by Dr. B. V. Rao (known as the father of Indian poultry industry). Getting into business, I had a chance meeting with the said person and was reluctant talking to him about my poultry start up. Considering the fact that I was a first generation businessman and that too in my early twenties, I thought I stood no where in the world of business. As it turned out, he seemed to be quite impressed with my enthusiasm and the fact that I had left my job in a FMCG MNC to start my own business. The talk was inspiring and supplemented me with the requisite courage to take the plunge. I have since remained in constant touch with him and benefitted immensely from his insight and mentoring. In spite of the presence of large producers who were established players in the business we made our way through to become the state's largest egg producer. Apart from the efforts put in by our team members and other factors, I have always realised my education, past experience and a global exposure has had a major role to play in providing our organisation the edge in the face of competition. We have been the early adaptors, technology leaders and have always taken the risk in pursuit of exponential growth.

Turnbull and Bentley (2005) have identified certain occurrences which might play as triggers of leadership development:

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Experimental leadership development courses.

Observing positive role models.

Mentoring, coaching and consultant relationships.

MBAs and leadership development courses.

International and multicultural experiences.

Voluntary and community work.

Team sports.

The suggested activities can be taken up at an individual level, which in turn can lead to development of leadership abilities by any individual if he or she pursues such interest.

Modern day research on the learning process has been advocated as "transformational learning theory". It accentuates on the self directed learning methodology and about change an individual brings in to oneself in order to live up to the responsibilities and achievement of organisational goals. Meizrow (1994, p.222) has put forth transformational learning as "the process of constructing and appropriating a new or revised interpretation of meaning of one's experience as a guide to action."

The cognitive process of learning is a key element of self development. (Merriam and Cafarella, 1999) have identified psychological edifice of experience, inner meaning and reflection being the components of the transformational learning process. Taylor (2000) has highlighted the importance of individual development as a vital aspect of transformational learning. Mr. Warren Buffet's investment strategies and course of leadership are shining examples of characteristics shared by cognitive theorists. Going by the principles of Cognitive theory, he has demonstrated all the requisite skills of perception, anticipation, and thinking. At the core of every sound investor is a creative innovator.

Leadership as self development:

A personal development regime can enable one to develop a plan that facilitates acquiring essential leadership skills required for delivering to the organisational demands and across a wide spectrum of environment (Buswell, 2010) .The stepping stone on a journey of personal development is knowing and taking control of oneself. Training modules like PDP run by Bradford school of management requires the students to identify, skills that they believe they are inadequate at and to work on developing the same. The whole process starts from identifying strengths and weaknesses, developing an action plan and addressing the issues. The writer of this essay being an entrepreneur himself has been greatly influenced by Sir Richard Branson. Sir Branson, in his book "Losing my virginity" has mentioned about his scribe pad where he would note down all the ideas that come to his mind and events that he thought might have a relevance to self development. Bennis, 1989 has also talked about an erstwhile Disney executive who used a yellow pad to jot down unfamiliar terms and references to seek answers to at the next opportune moment. The same approach helped getting to know where I as an individual stood and to work on the weaknesses.

Early life influences have been suggested as one of the factors for any individual to develop leadership abilities. Edwards 2011 however suggests that all managers can develop their leadership ability irrespective of gender and early life influences. It is only a matter of ability as to how much someone can develop more than other.

The way forward to developing as a leader for an individual is to know and take control of oneself. Overcoming emotional barriers, building self confidence and emotional intelligence play a pivotal role for an individual to develop as a leader (Edwards 2011).

Bennis(1989) talks about the importance of knowing the world as much as knowing oneself. A person can develop himself or herself beyond limits given the right attitude and a hunger for knowledge. Broad and systematic education, extensive travel and associations with mentors and groups make a big difference in personal development. It gives the individual the leverage over others in terms of authority and confidence. French and Raven (1959) in their classical behavioural model, mention of expert power which is power through knowledge. Travelling broadens up one's mind and makes people adapt to alien things. It helps seeing things in a different perspective which consequentially makes an individual flexible enough to adapt to the external environment and the challenging task of dealing with changing human behaviour.

A well organised leadership development programme can provide the right platform for an individual to cultivate requisite leadership skills needed to perform across a wide spectrum of roles.

As is said, knowing the problem is half the problem solved. Understanding oneself can take an individual to a situation where he or she starts working on the weaknesses and develops skills as necessary for the demands of the situation. As is cited above for the triggers of leadership, certain attributes from leaders or role models can be observed and emulated in the individual's context. Edwards, 2011 has mentioned "being thrown in the deep end" as a potential initiation of leadership development. Whereas it could be a practice followed by leaders to develop or nurture their sub ordinates, an individual can also get involved into circumstances with a conscious effort, where he or she is not familiar with and learn in the process. Bennis, 1989 has quoted Atkin as saying that, one sees a problem as an opportunity and learns through the experience of dealing with it. By doing so the individual not only develops own skills but could also earn the admiration of others. If we consider situational approach of leadership, it stresses of a dimension which consists of both directive and supportive elements which is applied appropriately in a given situation (Northhouse 2011). An individual who has gone through the process of dealing in unchartered territory will be better poised to understand the changing needs of subordinates and might be able to fine tune the degree to which he or she is directive or supportive.

Bennis 1989, has emphasised the importance of knowing oneself, self knowledge, self invention for self development and consequently as leaders. Individuals need to inculcate a process of self knowledge so as to develop as a leader. Characteristics like being one's own teacher, learning to take responsibility add value to personal development and that one can learn as much as one wants to learn and true understanding comes from reflecting the individual's own experience are being noted as tools to leadership development. It could be worked out as a journey one embarks upon to achieve personal identity with a focussed approach of self development.

Communication plays a pivotal role in getting people around to buy one's ideas. Effective leaders use it as a tool to get people involved in their ideas (Avery 2004). Apple founder Steve Jobs is famed for his ability to give speeches and captivate the audience' attention. He has been highly effective in inspiring his employees and audience with the ability of an evangelist. Levici (2002) has stated that communication ability constitutes an important ingredient of the individual charisma. In this respect it can be observed that Steve Jobs posses the charismatic abilities by communicating his ideas using metaphors and analogies and storytelling. However Jobs charisma could also be related to the deep understanding he has about the business, which could be co related to the expert power. According to Levici (2002) charisma can be developed by adopting a systematic acquisition of certain superficial attributes coupled with certain self development of tone of voice, style of speech and phraseology. It has however been highlighted that one needs to posses a character in order to have a sustainable impact on people.