Leaders are both born and made
There’s a long held view that great leaders are born, not made – that some people come into this world with certain personality traits which will make them leaders in the future.
“That doesn’t leave much room for improvement,” says Professor of Management and Organisation Studies Emmanuel Josserand. “Fortunately, there are other theories.”
On the other side of the table are those who subscribe to the behavioural theory of leadership. Leadership is regarded as something you can learn, something you can develop. Finally, there’s the “contingent” approach to leadership, which recognises there’s not just one type of leader or one form of leadership, says Prof Josserand, Co-Director of the Centre for Management and Organisation Studies (CMOS) at UTS Business School.
“It tells us that some behaviours are more useful in some contexts than others, and that you have to be able to adapt your behaviours to specific contexts,” Prof Josserand says. “There is not only one type of leader and one set of competencies. There are different leaders in different settings.”
"There is not only one type of leader
and one set of competencies. There are
different leaders in different settings.”
These three broad theories converge in “self-leadership”, an approach that acknowledges inherent strengths and personality traits but only as a starting point from which to develop leadership behaviours adapted to specific contexts.
“So, the starting point in self-leadership is to know one’s strengths and to develop a leadership style that will work in your context,” Prof Josserand says.
Under the traditional, deterministic view of leadership, some people are born leaders who will rise to higher roles; people will naturally follow them. This involves a “universal” image of leadership, where all leaders are the same, Prof Josserand says.
The image is of a Martin Luther King – someone who is born to rise above the crowd. “But there are not that many people who can achieve that level of leadership, and in most organisations it’s not necessarily what you are aiming for,” he says. “You might want a bit of that in your CEO, but there are many other characteristics you might want to develop in your people.
“The more we progress our thinking about leadership, the more we understand that, actually, one of the key capabilities of a leader is to be able to change your behaviour depending on the situation, on the context, on the people you’re talking to.
“And so, progressively, leadership theories have come to include aspects such as situational leadership, leadership that’s more supportive, leadership that’s more distributed.
“It’s about leadership as mentoring, coaching,” he says. “We want leaders who have the capacity to develop others as leaders, rather than to just be followed by others. Because at the end of the day that’s what you want if you want your organisation to be sustainable and resilient.”
“ ... leadership theories have come to include
aspects such as situational leadership,
leadership that’s more supportive,
leadership that’s more distributed."
It’s true that some of us might be more naturally gifted at leadership, but it is still possible to develop the right leadership behaviours in specific contexts, Prof Josserand says, which is a more optimistic message than being told leadership is a birthright only for some.
“All of us can improve our leadership capabilities by reflecting on who we are, who we are in specific contexts, and the best way to use our assets to develop others and to achieve more positive outcomes,” he says.
That means self-leadership is not a set of generic skills to be learned. It’s not about the five, or seven or ten “golden rules of leadership”. Nor is it something that can be taught using traditional classroom methods or picked up at a two-day conference.
“Leadership is still approached in terms of ‘training’ and I don’t think training is the answer,” Prof Josserand says. “This is about self-reflection and reflexivity – the capacity to question assumptions about others, assumptions about the situation, assumptions about who we are.
“If you want to ‘think outside the box’, if you want to come up with new solutions that will be more than a win-lose, zero-sum game but which will actually add value for all parties, you need to be creative, you need to respect others, and therefore one key aspect is to know yourself better.”
In the small-group Self-Leadership Lab run by CMOS, participants go through a four-stage reflection process over a number of months.
Is this sort of leadership development just for the C-suite? Prof Josserand says if we are to close the workplace leadership gap in Australia identified in a succession of reports, starting with Karpin in 1995, it needs to start much sooner.
“All of us can improve our
by reflecting on who we are ..."
“If we look at what we are trying to achieve in organisations today, I don’t think we can afford to pay the types of salaries we pay for well qualified and experienced people to just execute orders,” he says. “As soon as you start to allow people to make their own decisions around what they are doing, as soon as you ask them to be creative and develop new ideas, you need to develop in them this type of self-reflection.”
Self-leadership is particularly important in environments where people must have the highest ethical standards, he says. “We’ve done some work in the finance industry; if you think about the example of people working in trading rooms, there are things that self-leadership could do that procedures will never achieve,” he says.
Self-leadership also has a role in our personal lives, so that our behaviours match our core values.
Asked how, upon meeting someone, he would recognise them as having self-leadership, Prof Josserand says: “I think the main thing is that they really know who they are. That’s an extremely powerful position to be in if you want to lead others – to know where you stand, to know what your values are.
“If people reach that point where they are confident about what they want personally and then can translate that into action in relation to the organisation and to others, I think that’s extremely powerful.”
For more information and workshop dates for the Self-Leadership Lab run by CMOS, click here.