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Developing Leaders: Are Leaders Born or Made?

Vince Lombardi is famous for saying "Leaders are not born. They are made. They are made just like anything else, through hard work. That's the price you have to pay to achieve that goal or any goal." Leadership skills can be learned and leadership effectiveness can be developed1. Organizations typically identify a leadership gap and then seek to fill the gap through training efforts.

Robert Katz, in his book Skills of an Effective Administrator, explains that leadership is a learned skill. Although people possess varying amounts of aptitude to lead, their skills can be improved through training and practice. Furthermore, even those lacking strong innate ability can improve their performance through coaching and learning. This is the rationale for the establishment of leadership schools -- Plato's Academy, 387 BC; Aristotle's Lyceum, 355 BC; Oxford University, AD 1117; Harvard University, AD 1636; and the U.S. military academies, as well as over 2,000 corporate universities found in American business, industry, and government3.

One good way to learn is by studying the masters, those who have gone before. The most effective performers are honest in appraising their current skills and humble enough to learn from others. They copy, adapt, and sometimes surpass the heroes who were the source of their inspiration. They take to heart Yogi Berra's famous slogan "You can observe a lot by watching4."

Individuals who want to develop leadership effectiveness should identify superb leaders and learn from their example. They should observe their behavior and ask questions. Understanding the values and goals of successful leaders, the rationale for their decisions and actions, the principles underlying their skills and techniques, and the resources they use to solve problems and make decisions can serve as an excellent foundation for developing one's own leadership ability.

Although much of what is labeled as leadership development is classroom-based and is provided in courses, seminars, and lectures, important growth can come from on-the-job "stretch" experiences and, sometimes, the crucible of crisis. Experiences having developmental possibilities include early work experience, first-time supervision, responsibility for starting something from scratch or for fixing something (turnaround), expansion of job scope, special projects and task force assignments, and line to staff switch. These experiences usually force people to rise to a challenge or endure a trial they have never faced before. Out of adversity, hardship, and even loss can come meaningful development that cannot be easily achieved in the classroom setting.

Stretch Assignment

A quality shared by most great leaders is a love of learning. They love to stretch their knowledge and skills and expand their capacity to make a difference. Leadership stretch assignments involve taking risks and reaching beyond one’s comfort zone. They are determined efforts to improve leadership performance. Stretch assignments combat complacency and stimulate growth by “changing things up.” Examples of stretch projects include improving personal skills in public speaking, computer literacy, or community service; improving company performance by reconfiguring workflow for better quality; eliminating waste to reduce cost; and improving products and services to satisfy customers9.

Both emerging and experienced leaders can use stretch projects to keep themselves fresh and growing. Through personal example, such leaders model continuous improvement as a basic value. In many fields, the difference between average performance and exceptional performance is 10 percent. In baseball, for example, many players hit .275, but the best players hit over .300 (a difference of about 10 percent). A good goal for a stretch project would be to improve individual or group performance by at least 10 percent10.

Leaders can enhance professional success through an active program of personal reading. This is an activity that leaders should consider to broaden their perspective and deepen their knowledge. After basic biology, lives are determined by self-talk ("I am a loser," "I am a winner"), the people we are around (some will pull us down; some will pull us up), and the books we read (good ideas in books generate good deeds in life).

What do Employers Want in an Employee?

The number one quality employers want in an employee is honesty. The need for trust is paramount because the employer relies on the employee to serve its customers, protect its property, and uphold its reputation. Employee honesty is essential.

Second, the employer wants someone who will take initiative and be a self-starter. The employee who is eager to serve is viewed as an asset. Demographics are less important than the underlying qualities of self-motivation, desire to learn, and personal commitment. These qualities are important irrespective of age, gender, and ethnicity.

Third, employers want employees with good problem-solving ability, including technical knowledge and skills. For example, the ability to obtain, analyze, and use quantitative information is important in many jobs.

These "big three" qualities are followed by communication skills, the ability to get along well with others, creative responses to setbacks and obstacles, a high-attitude-low-maintenance approach to work, and leadership potential to constitute the characteristics of an ideal employee20.

The following are basic rules for succeeding in one’s work:

  1. Put your best foot forward. Ask what is expected of you and with whom you will be working; then exceed expectations. Build good working relationships from the beginning.
  2. Deliver results. Be known for reliability and performance. Stay on task, and persevere in the face of challenge. Let your deeds speak louder than the words you use.
  3. Be considerate. Work cooperatively to accomplish tasks. Lend a helping hand to others in need, and have a one-team attitude in dealing with people.
  4. Be creative. Keep an open mind, and look for ways to improve your organization and the work you do. Be original and open to new ideas.
  5. Have integrity. Remember, success comes from doing the right things for the right reasons in the right way. Keep your thinking cap on to know what is right. Keep your character strong to do what is right.

Consider the practice of Alan B. Miller, CEO, and chairman of Universal Health Services, who uses a 3i screen for hiring employees. Miller requires integrity (honesty in all dealings), intensity (self-drive and determination), and intelligence (problem-solving ability) in order of importance. These guidelines trump all other factors, including academic credentials and social connections. Miller believes the 3i's can be difficult to assess, but they are critical for both individual and organizational success. As such, in-depth interviews and background investigation are favored over automated selection methods that fail to measure the "human factors" of success. Although the 3i's are important for all employees to possess, Miller believes integrity, intensity, and intelligence are indispensable qualities for effective leadership.

Peak performance is important for the individual and the organization. It is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

To personalize the concept of peak performance, answer the following questions:

  1. Describe a time in your life when you performed at your personal best. When was it? Who was involved? What happened? What were the results?
  2. As a result of your personal best, what did you learn about yourself? About other people? About excellence?
  3. Based on your personal best and lessons learned, what are your plans for the road ahead? What goals do you have? What steps can you take to perform (again) at a peak-performance level?

Whatever you are called to be in life you should perform your work so well that all the hosts of heaven will declare, here is a great baker, machinist, farmer, or chief, who does his or her work well23.


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  19. Authors' files, Correction Corporation of America, 2010 (CoreCivic, 2016).
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About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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