It was legendary sports coach Vince Lombardi who first said, “Leaders are made, not born.”
But is there actually an art to creating the leaders you need?
While we’ve all been lucky enough to have one or two exceptional leaders along the way, we likely have also encountered subpar bosses throughout our careers and wondered, “How did this person get to this position of leadership?”
Organizations tend to cultivate individuals and assign them leadership roles based on a lot of hidden assumptions about how they fit in with the established norms and practices within the organization. Companies seldom take big risks, but instead choose individuals they feel will complement their existing culture and approaches. In this case, some leaders may have been “born” in that their gender, race and socioeconomic background launched them into their position, rather than their hard work or exceptional people skills.
Problem with creating the leaders
The problem is, some traditional leadership styles are starting to show signs of strain as business and culture shifts. We may have been happy enough to tolerate hard-charging, macho, take-no-prisoners, Logan Roy-type CEOs in prosperous times, but now talent is scarce, the free venture capital money has vanished and leaders need to navigate through challenging situations. Companies where leaders were able to get away with abhorrent behavior for years are starting to find themselves exposed as the circumstances worsen.
The reality is that you can get away with being a difficult leader as long as everything is going up and to the right. But as soon as a company experiences challenges or setbacks, without capable, human-centered leadership, their best people will choose to leave. Suddenly employee retention becomes an issue, with consequences amounting to a trillion dollar problem.
What to nurture
Clearly, CEOs with a command and control-minded mindset can get away with a lot of poor behavior as long as the company is thriving, but they face repercussions as soon as things get challenging. We also see the opposite, where a company may be struggling but because it has strong, compassionate leaders, its people are prepared to stick by them during turbulent times. This loyalty and trust has been built over years of healthy, as opposed to toxic, leadership styles.
So it’s advisable to nurture the latter type of leader — to “make” leaders who embody qualities better suited to a workplace culture that’s increasingly emphasizing accountability with empathy. In other words, what’s called for is leaders with the management skills to ensure the work gets done, and the people leadership skills to enable every employee to do their best work.
The best way to cultivate these leaders is to adopt a sustainable leadership model that encourages them to develop the core relational skills that a modern workplace requires. Additionally, implementing internal feedback mechanisms that surface both positive and negative behaviors is crucial.
Particularly in large companies, individuals can easily conceal themselves when employees fear the repercussions of exposing someone. The best companies know this and construct feedback mechanisms that expose bad actors and make it difficult for them to operate behind the scenes.
Making long-term leaders
What does this look like in practice? We work with leading data analytics company FICO, where they invest in leaders as a key driver for engaging employees and harnessing their true potential. The company’s vision of an effective leader is an individual who inspires excellence and encourages employees to bring their best selves to work. FICO invests heavily in helping its people acquire and develop leadership skills and become inspirational leaders.
I find this emphasis suggestive of a shift in what we think a good leader needs to look like in 2023. It demonstrates a conscious effort to embed values in the workplace that “make” the future leaders who live by these positive, inclusive principles.
At another organization, Reddit, a key focus has been to maintain and bolster a unique company culture that ensures employees feel empowered and excited to come to work. This entails not only continuously adapting and evolving workforce philosophies, programs and processes to enhance the work experience, but also developing the emerging class of leaders through coaching programs so they can drive company growth and embody the company’s values.
Accepting the journey
We are in a new age where our expectations of leaders have evolved rapidly and significantly. First, we expect more of leaders in demonstrating people leadership skills such as remote culture-building, handling ambiguity and honing interpersonal savvy.
Secondly, we recognize that they need development resources to reach the level of proficiency we now expect from them. Leaders must be able to build the kind of trust and loyalty necessary to navigate the challenges of a wartime, not a peacetime, CEO.
But we also need to acknowledge that this leader-making process is just that — a process. Every leader is a work in progress. It would alleviate a great deal of stress if we embraced the notion that anyone who has been on the planet for more than 20 years can benefit from some development and exposure to new ideas around key issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
If we accept that we are all on a journey, and that even the most innately able individual could learn to be a better leader, we’d all be losing our tempers a lot less with other people (especially on social media).
At the same time, leadership qualities may still stem from a combination of both nature and nurture. There are some qualities that you like to see more of in leaders that some of us just naturally have more of, such as self-awareness and curiosity.
These are aptitudes that provide a strong foundation for individuals aspiring to become effective leaders. However, these aptitudes alone are not only innate, and their development through techniques like coaching can truly unlock their potential as powerful drivers of performance.
And let’s be honest: the process of making a leader should never truly finish, even for the most naturally gifted individuals. As humans, as much as we progress, we are also constantly regressing throughout our lives. (Ask the best parent in the world if they never lose it with their kids!)
It’s essential to recognize a pattern of “two steps forward, one step back” as part of the journey, and be willing to learn from experiences that don’t reflect well on us either as leaders or as people. The bottom line about leadership is that it’s complex and no one’s got it 100% right. It’s essential not to be intimidated by the LinkedIn posts from individuals you admire who always seem to have the right answers. The reality of being a human being is far more complex and nuanced than its portrayal on social media.
Constant openness to learn
So if leaders are in fact made, not born, who is making them? While in the context of work, it’s important to have the support of the organization to develop as a leader, it’s on us as individual leaders to embrace the learning with openness. We’re all constantly learning, or should be. And the best leaders are the ones who recognize the importance of that continuous growth and improvement.
We started our conversation about leadership with a callout to Vince Lombardi. Lombardi’s full quote is where we should end because its second half contains a profound truth about leadership: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made — just like anything else — through hard work.”
How true. But with modern approaches to coaching and leadership itself, we can make that hard work and commitment a little easier to get started on.