November 24, 2006
I read a blog post recently arguing that leaders are born, not made. I disagree. I view leadership as a continuum, probably because of my other view that there is only one trait of a leader: followers.
If the only trait of leadership that matters is that other people are motivated by what you say and do, or are influenced to act in a way that is in line with your goals -- whether in your personal or professional life -- then you are leading.
Easy examples? Do you usually pick where your group goes to lunch? What about movies? Did you get a new Powerbook a couple years ago and now all your friends want one? You're leading.
True, this kind of leadership is at the low end of the spectrum (an amateur-level practice, at the same level as buying a point and shoot camera to take pictures at your kid's parties), but it's leadership, and we all do it all the time.
You can focus, shape, and multiply this "consumer-level" leadership when you recognize that you are leading, and then think consciously about consequences and meaning before (or as) you act. This conscious interaction with the consequences of your own leadership leads you to develop over time a more well-developed leadership skill set that can allow you have to real impact.
This is a "pro-sumer" kind of leadership (to carry on the product analogy): you are more accomplished than most amateurs, and probably using a high-end digital camera, but still not making a living.
When you start really developing your leadership skills by seeking mentors, seeing a bigger picture, and setting a vision you can graduate to the "professional" level of leadership. Not everyone wants to put in this kind of time and effort, and it takes some real talent to really succeed as a professional in leadership just like everything else. But to some extent you can exchange talent for time and effort and still become an accomplished leader or an accomplished professional photographer.
Then there are the virtuosos: Jack Welch from GE as the famous photographer Ansel Adams (to finish the camera analogy). Sure, these guys did the rest of the stuff I've already talked about, but they have a magic sauce the rest of us just don't have. They work as hard as we do and accomplish orders of magnitude more, sometimes even with the same equipment.
I do think that virtuosos are born and not made. Whatever your craft -- whether leadership or photography -- if you don't know you are a virtuoso already you probably aren't.
You probably aren't a virtuoso
I'm certainly not either. But here's the thing: the world doesn't need legions of Jack Welch clones. We just need stronger leadership throughout our personal and professional organizations. And where we really need it is at the bottom, where most people think leadership is "someone else's job."
Leaders are born and made, and you can start making a difference in the world around you right now no matter which class you fall in to.
West is the director of a Top 20 supercomputing center and author of The Only Trait of a Leader (www.onlytraitofaleader.com), a book and blog about leadership and career skills for technology professionals. Contact him at email@example.com.
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