Ah, Nature Versus Nurture, the neverending debate! I’ve spent a lifetime pondering the question of nature versus nurture (that’s what happens when you’re a social psychologist), and thinking about it for the last two decades specifically in the context of leadership. Much of the discourse on leadership suggests that great leaders emerge from many sources. Leadership goes far beyond being either born or made. Instead, it’s a journey of self-discovery, relentless improvement, and adaptation to ever-changing environments.

Leadership: Innate Qualities and Nurtured Skills

Effective leadership is a complex mix of innate(ish) qualities combined with learned skills. While some people might display early signs of leadership through their natural charisma, decisiveness, or ability to inspire and mobilize others (and who knows if these are truly innate or picked up through exposure to family and friends), these raw talents alone are insufficient to navigate the complexities and demands of leadership roles. True leadership demands a wide range of learned skills—like strategic planning, emotional intelligence, and effective communication—that are honed over time through education, experience, and introspection.

Shaping Leaders Through Experience

Life experiences, particularly those that test our resilience and adaptability, are instrumental in developing leadership. Through navigating the challenges, setbacks, and sometimes mundane daily tasks, individuals learn the art of perseverance, strategic thinking, and the capacity to lead with empathy and understanding, each highly relevant to leadership. Each challenge faced is a lesson learned, contributing to a leader’s growth and ability to lead with confidence and competence.

Education Plus Lifelong Learning

Exceptional leadership is deeply linked to a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Every great leader is a great learner. Through formal and informal education, self-directed study (reading!), and seeking out new and challenging experiences, aspiring leaders develop the tools necessary for effective leadership. This educational journey not only equips individuals with the technical skills required in their fields but also broadens their perspectives, so they can lead with vision and integrity.

Mentoring and Coaching in the Leadership Journey

The influence of coaches and mentors in shaping leaders cannot be overstated. Mentors act as guides, offering wisdom gleaned from their own experiences, providing feedback, and encouraging reflection. These important relationships not only accelerate the leadership journey but also help in navigating the complex landscape of leadership challenges, ensuring that potential leaders do not have to face these hurdles alone.

A coach, in contrast, acts as a catalyst for personal and professional development, focusing on unlocking a leader’s potential through structured guidance, challenging assumptions, and fostering a space for growth. Coaches also employ techniques that encourage leaders to find their own solutions to challenges, which enhances their problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Together, coaches and mentors provide a comprehensive support system that is invaluable in cultivating effective, resilient, and visionary leaders.

Structured Leadership Development Programs

Leadership development programs offer a structured way for individuals to craft their leadership capabilities. These programs blend theoretical knowledge with practical applications, creating environments where aspiring leaders can test themselves, refine their skills, and reflect on their personal and professional growth. Such programs are crucial in developing new leaders, ensuring they are equipped to face the challenges of leadership with the necessary skills and mindset. A word of caution, however: leadership development programs are rarely effective when they a) do not include effective instructional design for the development curriculum, b) exclude coaching as a mechanism for increasing impact from curriculum, and c) are designed and offered within organizational contexts where the individuals in the program are not being seriously considered for promotion. That is, if you’re creating a leadership development program in your organization but your organization isn’t planning to use participants for succession planning, you’re going to have some very disappointed high performers. Big mistake.

The Leadership Mindset

Becoming a leader is more than just knowledge and skills. Being an exceptional leader requires a leadership mindset—a way of thinking that embraces challenge, continuous improvement, and a commitment to ethical leadership. The leadership mindset requires vision, courage, and belief in oneself. And exceptional leaders possess the ability to make difficult decisions, have hard conversations, and effect positive change. Cultivating this mindset is an intentional choice, one that requires emerging leaders to think carefully and deliberately.

Lifelong Evolution

Leadership is a continuous journey of growth and self-improvement. You cannot be an exceptional leader if you don’t think of yourself as a continuous work in progress and a lifelong learner. Leadership requires that you continuously level up your skills and knowledge and deepen your self-awareness and awareness of others. And, leadership requires a strength of character that includes balance – between confidence and humility, authority and empathy, vision and adaptability. Leaders must be able to inspire others to achieve their best, while also striving to surpass their limits.

While certain people may show early signs of leadership potential, early performance is no guarantee of leadership success. Exceptional leadership is cultivated through a relentless pursuit of growth, learning, and self-discovery. It is a journey that is both personal and professional, requiring a commitment to develop the skills, mindset, and character necessary to lead effectively. Leadership, then, is not merely a product of innate qualities but the result of a conscious and continuous effort to grow, adapt, and lead by example.

The making of a leader is a testament to the belief that with the right mindset, support, and opportunities for growth, anyone can develop into a leader.

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