David Malcolm chairs Cal West Apartments and a San Diego community leader with more than five decades of work experience.
Are the best business leaders “naturals” or are they the product of their experiences? This has been debated for ages, and I could argue with gusto on both sides.
in a article in Inc., Logan Chierotti writes, “estimates suggest that 30-60% of leadership is hereditary.” That leaves a big role for learning, that is, nurturing. In his book “The powers to lead”, says Joseph S. Nye, “Nature and education are intertwined, but education is much more important.”
While scholarly opinions differ so widely, regarding “nature versus nurture,” they seem to agree that it is a combination of both.
Despite what Shakespeare said – “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have taken on greatness” – some leadership traits are innate and some are learned.
What are leaders born with?
When I think of the business leaders who have been the most successful, inspiring and impactful, there is one common characteristic. If you don’t have “fire in the belly”, you won’t rise to the top. That is not a learned trait.
Fire in the belly is what drives you to work hard, to work past the 40-hour work weeks. It’s what keeps you going and builds more resilience – what takes you to the mountain top.
Visionary thinking is another inherent quality that you either have or lack. Looking beyond the possible and imagining something cannot be learned. Can you imagine Steve Jobs teaching someone to imagine a computer more powerful than anything on an Apollo mission that fits in a pocket? And call?
It also strikes me that the best leaders have a unique ability to connect the dots — to see synergies and correlations between disparate bits of information, perspectives, and even events. By doing this, they can see over the horizon and communicate direction to others.
What do leaders learn along the way?
An essential point that everyone agrees on in business leadership is the ability to bring together and motivate a team. No one can achieve as much on their own as with a team. And building and leading a team is primarily a learned skill.
With young children, everything revolves around themselves. We learn about working with others through family dynamics, education, friendships, and work. The better you are at this, the better you become as a leader. That learning never stops.
When you’ve learned how to turn your best ideas into ideas, you’ll reap the rewards of true teamwork.
Another important learning opportunity is the incredible value of mentors. Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Mentors who share their successes and failures help us avoid having to reinvent the wheel. Successful business leaders can almost always identify mentors who have helped, inspired, and even taken them to greater heights.
I always advise young entrepreneurs to find and learn from mentors.
And then there’s another crucial quality that can only be learned through experience: resilience, especially in the face of adversity.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career and I’ll pass on to anyone who asks is that you have to have a lot of ideas. Some will be better than others, and some will lead to failure. Picking yourself up and moving on builds leadership after a stumbling block or failure. Leaders do that; they don’t lick their wounds and give up.
Adversity can be as simple as being young. I started my career when I was still in high school and had a hard time being taken seriously.
It could be a physical disability, like the young woman I met who won several gold medals at the Paralympic Games and led her team. Resilience, especially in the face of adversity, is a crucial leadership trait.
If that isn’t a clear example of resilience in the face of adversity, then I don’t know what is.
Is one more important than the other?
Sir Richard Branson said that “caring for people is important. You can’t be a good leader unless you like people in general.” Is that innate or learned? I believe it is a combination of both.
Of course there are exceptions. Steve Jobs was not a warm and caring leader. He was even fired from his own company for making bad decisions and was notoriously harsh on people. But he returned to Apple and founded one of the world’s most valuable companies.
If great business leaders are born and not made, why is there such a huge industry around teaching leadership and management? It clearly has a proven value. Is it most valuable to people with certain innate traits? I can’t answer that.
Finally, I firmly believe that a leader’s humility is an essential characteristic that encompasses both innate qualities and learned behaviors. A humble leader sets a good example. They won’t make someone do a job they haven’t done or wouldn’t do. They lead by inspiration. A humble leader never leads through intimidation.
This brings me to something I’ve learned through my corporate career and serving on the boards of directors of both public and private companies. A great business leader always gets less credit than is deserved – and always gets more debt than deserved.