I’m often asked whether I believe there’s such a thing as naturally born leaders. To which I usually respond that I’ve yet to meet an unnaturally born one.
But if the question is whether people are born as leaders and followers, then the answer is an unequivocal no. If you look across a nursery of newborns, it’s ridiculous to think that we could pre-destine one group as leaders and another as followers.
If leadership was some innate talent, we’d have a serious shortage on our hands. What percentage of people are born with exceptional athletic ability? What about a prodigious musical talent? If we’re looking across the population for exceptional genetic gifts, by definition, we’re limited to an exceptionally small minority.
In which case we’d be forced to recognize this talent at an early age, separate those individuals out for special programs to fully develop their gifts, and then hope that we can somehow spawn enough leaders to meet the challenges of the future.
Yet this isn’t the case. We don’t need to do this. Because while it’s true that some people are born with different strengths, leadership is a collection of behaviors and practices. And behaviors and practices can always be learned and improved.
If you want to be a leader, the good news is that you can do it. Everyone has this ability. And while there’s no one path to getting there, every leader has two things in common. The first is that they didn’t become great leaders overnight. And the second? They got there by leading.
Leaders Grow Every Day
“Champions aren’t made in the ring,” Joe Frazier once said, “they are merely recognized there.” It’s the things we do each day, day after day, that shape who we become.
When we picture great leaders, we see people who’ve demonstrated great vision and insight to convince those around them to pursue a better future. We see people who are in complete control and reinforce trust with every action. And we see people who consistently win.
We don’t see the years of work that have gone into creating that moment. We don’t see the trials and setbacks that have been overcome with persistence and determination. And we don’t see the failures and lessons that led to that version.
We see Steve Jobs of 1997, not Steve Jobs of 1985.
Yet none of these later versions exist without the earlier one. None of the quality results happen without the struggles and dedication needed to create them.
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his time when it comes.” Great leaders invest years in developing their skills so that they’ll be ready to capitalize on opportunities when they arise. And it’s what we do every day, with discipline and consistency, that gets us ready for our time.
Leaders understand that the skills and practices that make them effective only come through practice and continuous learning.
What is your personal development plan? We rarely achieve the growth that we need by accident. Many people have to-read and to-do lists. Few have to-learn or to-develop lists. Highlight where you want to grow and decide how you can do it on a daily basis.
The important step is starting. Clay Shirkey wrote that “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act,” in his book, Cognitive Surplus. “On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is doing nothing and doing something.”
Take the first step. The rest just requires incremental improvement.
“It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.” Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary of the fifth century B.C.
One of the most influential leaders of the Air Force is likely someone you’ve never heard of. His name was John Boyd, and he was a truly amazing fighter pilot. In his time training recruits, he became known as “Forty-second Boyd,” meaning he could beat any opponent, from any position, in forty seconds.
But his crowning achievement was the impact he had on military tactics and policy. His energy-maneuverability theory changed the way fighter planes are designed, helping him craft both the F-15 and F-16. His tactics, combined with an in-depth knowledge of thermodynamics, changed the way that every air force in the world flies and fights. And his maneuver warfare concepts changed military strategies from the traditional, conservative style, to the adaptive, agile strikes that would help the military adapt into a changing world.
But despite his accomplishments, Boyd was never promoted above the rank of Colonel. He made a career of offending Generals and embarrassing bureaucrats who strove to preserve an outdated status quo. He was highly principled, and like many people driven by their principles, had little patience with those who disagreed with him.
Boyd recognized early on, that if he wanted to pursue the changes that he saw as necessary, he’d be creating no shortage of enemies, many of which would negatively impact his career. This realization spawned his “to be or to do” attitude. As he frequently advised his followers,
“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
There is perhaps no area where we can see this choice more clearly than leadership. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be perfect from the start. We insist that we’re able to “be” a leader before we start to “do.”
This makes it easy to hold back. It makes it easy to wait on the sidelines, letting others step up and lead, until you feel as though you’re ready to be a leader.
The problem is that no one ever became a leader by watching other people lead. The only way to truly develop these skills is to step up and start leading.
This isn’t to say that there’s no value in studying others and increasing the tools at our disposal. There’s no shortage of great tactics, books, and role models out there to learn from. But none of it can compare to jumping in and finding out what it’s like to take on that leadership role.
You can study writing, but you don’t begin developing your craft until those first words go down on the page. And you can watch people paint, but you’re not truly growing as an artist until you pick up the brush and make your own mark.
Leaders lead. You won’t be perfect on day 1. Actually, you won’t be perfect on day 10,001 either. But you’ll be better. And that’s really all that matters.
Everyone’s Flawed. Leaders Especially.
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, reviewed heroes — real and mythical — across many different cultures. He developed his famous Hero’s Journey to describe the archetypical paths they take through life. And his definition of a “hero” is very similar to how leaders develop.
For Campbell, a “hero” isn’t flawless. They don’t always succeed. Nearly the opposite. As Campbell described, a hero is someone who “found or achieved or [did] something beyond the normal range of achievement,” and who “has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.”
Similarly, in his ode to resilience, Eric Greitens describes one of the recurring themes to Marcus Aurelius’s writing as, “Leadership’s responsibility is to work intelligently with what is given and not waste time fantasizing about a world of flawless people and perfect choices.”
The perfect opportunity never comes. People who wait for it spend their lives doing just that — waiting. The fact that you’re not ready needs to stop being an excuse — and be part of the challenge instead.
People who stoke fantasies about natural born leaders are giving themselves an excuse. They’re rationalizing the fact that they don’t want to put in the work to test themselves in non-ideal conditions. They’re excluding themselves from facing the situations and struggles that will force them to grow.
The world needs more leaders. And we won’t get them through bokanovskified breeding programs. We’ll get them as people choose to develop these skills. We’ll get them as people choose to do.
Start leading today. Become a leader. We need you.