Leaders Are Made, Not Born

photo of older businesswoman training a group of young leaders

I wish I had a dollar for every time a senior leader has said something like this about a junior manager: “She’s been in the workforce for more than three years now. She should know how to do this” — with “this” being “lead a dysfunctional team” or some other advanced leadership skill.

Whether you are the senior person in this scenario or the emerging leader, there’s one vital thing for you to know:

Leadership skills do not magically develop by themselves. They must be learned and practiced.

Notice that I say “skills.” Leadership is not one skill but a set of competencies. For example, the Leadership Essentials program at Loyola University (more below) covers teams, emotional intelligence, conflict management, communicative competence, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, along with concrete skills such as financial analysis.

These skills are not innate. They don’t develop simply through being on the job. The senior execs who complain that junior managers should already know what they’re doing have forgotten two things:

  1. They themselves had to learn to lead. If they didn’t have training, they learned through trial and error. It was messy. The only reason they didn’t get fired was that someone was patient with them.
  2. The junior managers they’re complaining about were promoted because they were good at their previous job–programming, logistics, marketing, whatever. They have had little opportunity to develop leadership skills.

Wanting to understand better what emerging leaders are going through these days, I talked with my colleague and friend Lori Galen Fuchs, director of the aforementioned Leadership Essentials program. I was on the steering committee that instituted an early version of this program back in 2008.

“The participants of Leadership Essentials are amazing in so many ways,” said Lori. “But they typically come to the program with a lack of confidence. They’re often seeking to ‘correct’ themselves.”

Lori explained that participants who have been sent by their organizations–as opposed to the ones who choose to attend on their own–often are trying to figure out what about them needs to be “fixed.” In fact, their organizations sent them because they are high-potential candidates who need new skills to grow into their potential.

Knowing what I know about how bosses sometimes talk, I’m not surprised that emerging leaders think something must be wrong with them. If both parties could remember that leadership skills are not automatically bestowed at promotion, both parties would be better equipped to deal with reality.

  • Bosses could be more supportive and less judgmental.
  • Emerging leaders could focus on growth rather than on fixing themselves.

“Leadership isn’t about regret,” Lori said. “It isn’t about what you should have done. It’s about growth, change, and movement.”

The process of Leadership Essentials–and other high-quality leadership development programs–is a process of self-discovery. “It’s really about embracing your whole self and putting yourself in a situation to build on your strengths,” said Lori.

When I asked which skill or class had the most impact on Leadership Essentials students, Lori said, “Our [personal strengths] assessment typically has the biggest and most lasting impact. I see alums years later, and they still remember their [assessment results] and the impact of learning about what motivates them.”  

After experimenting with different self-assessment tools, Lori came to the conclusion that the choice of tools didn’t really matter. “It’s more about the process of assessing and self-understanding, and about realizing that others are motivated differently.” See?  Self-discovery is a powerful experience!

So, whether you are a senior leader responsible for developing the next generation or an emerging leader stepping into a new role, here are the takeaways:

  •  It takes time and effort to develop leadership skills.
  • Growth is easier when we have help. Consider signing up for a multi-session training program or getting a coach.
  • Developing non-technical skills is an evolutionary process. Learners should take on one skill at a time, building competence before moving to the next skill. Then repeat.
  • Be patient, whether you’re the learner or the boss. Nothing that really matters can be learned quickly. 
  • An ideal way to develop leadership skills is in a group process with other emerging leaders in the same organization. Team-based skills development can create a shared understanding of key concepts. And every participant will have built-in mentors!

What’s the next best step forward for you and your team? Could you benefit from talking it through with a thought partner?  Click here to schedule a complimentary coaching session with me.

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