Are great leaders born or made? While this question may seem cliché, it deserves examination when we consider the generally poor results produced by the leadership training industry. Great leaders have come from all walks of life, and I suspect few great leaders became what they are by attending leadership seminars and boot camps. It would seem that leaders are born, but the traits exhibited by strong leaders are almost universally consistent and well documented. Therefore it should be relatively easy to train and create good -- if not great -- leaders. But if training leaders were this easy, then why are leadership skills such a rare and valuable commodity? Since leadership is not something that requires physical prowess like a sport, what could be creating the gap between leadership knowledge and actual performance? The answer is negative conditioning.
Several months ago I had a discussion with a mid-level manager about who needs to be a good leader. I explained that while there are differences between management and leadership, anyone in the company, regardless of their title, could and should show their best leadership skills. While he easily recognized the strong and weak leaders in his own company and could single out the traits that made them such, he still argued that leadership was only for C-level executives and anyone beneath that level should be absolved of leadership responsibilities. As I considered his argument it occurred to me that for him, leadership was like owning a Ferrari. We all know what a Ferrari is. Most of us can recognize one when we see it on the street. But owning a Ferrari, like being a leader, was for the boss -- something reserved for "other" people, not for the rank and file. No matter what I said, I couldn't get my friend to see that leadership was not something reserved for the select few. He had the knowledge, but he'd been conditioned to believe that leadership was not for him.
Unfortunately, past experience supported his beliefs as the norm, not the exception for most mid-level managers. But what could be causing this mass conditioning that was preventing so many people from taking more active leadership roles? The answer lies in how we've been programmed to accept social hierarchies. Almost everything we experience in life is based on a hierarchical structure. We're given grades A-F and go from first grade to twelfth grade. Once we reach college, we become freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. In the workforce we're given titles and pay grades that are designed to show our level and importance. For the vast majority of us, all of this development happens without the opportunity to ever really assume a true position of leadership. After so many years of conditioning to be role players, the challenge isn't to teach people what makes good leaders, but to break them of the programming that has convinced them they are not fit to be leaders.
There are many different ways to change a person's anti-leadership conditioning, but the most direct is to simply put them in a temporary -- but real -- situation that requires them to take a leadership role. The two keys are to require them, not just allow them, to accept responsibility, and to make sure the situation and stakes are real (as opposed to a team building exercise at the company offsite). Because of their negative conditioning, most people will not choose to take on more responsibility; however, they can be surprisingly resilient and resourceful when the situation demands it.
Recently, I was coaching a senior executive who planned on ordering layoffs. As we worked through the challenges facing his company, I suggested he give his middle managers the opportunity to avoid layoffs if they could meet certain expense reductions and/or productivity improvements. The goals were clearly defined and no restrictions were placed on the managers regarding past processes and systems. Much to his delight, several members of his team met the goals and avoided laying off staff in the process. For employees who have never been asked to lead, an experience such as this will be the first step in demystifying leadership, and it will provide a positive reinforcing event that will begin to change their conditioned perceptions. Over time, as they grow from each leadership experience, they will begin to change their beliefs and overcome their underlying fears and negative programming.
Talking about leadership is easy, but changing the conditioning that causes the vast majority of people to reject -- and therefore fail at -- leadership, is the real obstacle to producing tangible results. If you succeed in making leadership behavior the norm and not the exception, the rewards can be extraordinary. I was recently browsing the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans and I was struck by the fact that approximately 33% of them did not graduate from college. Clearly these entrepreneurs did not allow hierarchy or lack of formal credentials to stop them from becoming leaders. They obviously didn't believe that leadership was only for the old school CEO with the MBA. Perhaps they missed the negative conditioning when they dropped out of school and skipped the corporate ladder. Since they weren't conditioned NOT to lead, perhaps they just didn't know any other way.