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Leadership: Who we are and what we’ve become

Research continues to prove and disprove leadership skills as either inherent or acquired.

Professionals in psychology, philosophy, sociology and behavioral management have been studying, writing about and reporting on this topic for years – with little consensus of opinion.

If leadership skills are inherent, does that mean we’ll be fighting an uphill battle every time we train team members who did not aggressively push their way through the birth canal to daylight?

On the other hand, if leadership skills are acquired, does it mean that every one of our team members is a candidate for leadership development?

If we consider the inherent and acquired discussion valuable, should we let these perspectives influence our decisions regarding who and how we hire, and who and how we train?

Or, at the very least, should we be open to using this information to change the kinds of questions we ask our team members during one-on-one conversations and use to interview key candidates?

If the knowledge about leadership skills being inherent or learned doesn’t feel all that relevant to you as it relates to the employees you value as part of your team – or candidates you might be hiring – consider instead asking about their first work experience.

This exercise is a great way to uncover what seeds were planted early on and the type of mindset that grew out of the experience. Their perspectives will be full of clues and insights into the type of employee they are now, and may be, long into the future.

For a research project, I surveyed a few dozen people in a variety of capacities in manufacturing, distribution and service. They were a mix of business owners, business leaders, managers and supervisors.

The questions were simple:

(1) What was your first job?

(2) What did the job entail?

(3) How did it make you feel to have this job (what made it special for you)?

The types of first-job experiences included delivering newspapers, working on a farm, cutting grass, shoveling snow, being a camp counselor, bookkeeping and cashiering.

One respondent’s first job was working on a farm picking tomatoes:

“It paid 20 cents a basket, and the job only lasted as long as the harvest. I learned that the more efficient you were, the more money you could make. I also learned that any missed opportunity to work would result in someone else capitalizing on the vanishing harvest, and as the seasons came and went, the better workers got the best opportunity to earn.

“I appreciated working my way up. Picking tomatoes bought my first new bike, my first car and my first insurance payment.”

Can you visualize the seeds that were planted with this respondent’s experience? Would you be surprised to know this individual founded, owns and operates three very successful companies? What were the clues?

Other respondents said:

• “I enjoyed the freedom and the responsibility outside of what my parents expected from me.”

• “. . . helping people.”

• “Getting paid for the work I did.”

• I liked being treated with respect.”

• “. . . meeting interesting people.”

• “Being part of the outcome.”

• “Gaining the awareness of possibilities in the workplace.”

• “Knowing that no job would ever be ‘beneath me’ after the experience in such deplorable conditions.”

In general, the impressions left on the individuals surveyed were quite telling. Even if they disliked the work they did, each person gained from the experience.

For me, the responses reinforced that our first work-experiences, regardless of the experience, plant seeds for the future. And those seeds help us develop all of the skills that fall under the heading of leadership – accountability, communication, self-confidence and so on.

Leadership skills, inherent or acquired, need to be nurtured. Getting role models, coaches, teachers and mentors in place at the earliest possible stages for new workforce entrants will translate the experience into something even more meaningful.

The same holds true for budding and seasoned leaders in our companies. Learning is never finished.

Leadership is not about position or title. It is about who we are, and what we become.

American writer Richard Bach wrote, “What you hold in your heart shall be true, and what you most admire, that you shall become.”

Textbook answers include descriptions such as: a process of social influence, a mindset that engages character traits and interpersonal skills, and one person’s ability to maximize the efforts of others to achieve a common goal.

Engaging the most simple character traits can be the most influential indicators to demonstrate one’s leadership potential.

A client once told me, “When I see someone pick up a piece of paper on the floor instead of stepping over it, stay late to finish a project or come to me with an issue and options for solutions – without me asking them to do these things – I know I have a winner.”

Get a clear picture of what leadership means to you. It will be easier to incorporate a more thought-provoking approach to your interview process, conversations with your team members and ongoing training, mentoring and coaching for you and your employees.

Bonnie Sussman-Versace – business leader, entrepreneur and principal of Focused LLC in Wyomissing – is dedicated to developing leaders, enhancing cultures and improving performance for business growth and prosperity. She can be reached at bversace@focusedllc.net.

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