Are leaders born or are they made?

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You may have seen my recent video answering the question in a short 2-minute clip, however, I felt that this couldn’t really do justice to this particular topic – hence this blog post.

A leader will never be the complete package

Leadership is something that can be learned and honed over time. It is a journey in which you are constantly improving on your skills and attitudes that set you apart as a leader. If you assume that leaders can be born you close yourself off to this journey. You are saying that there is a point where you don’t need to learn any more. This is contrary to the growth mindset and the way most successful leaders lead. The most successful leaders are always looking for opportunities to learn and grow and develop themselves. They recognise they are only human and cannot ever attain a place where there is no more to learn. To live is to learn and to learn is to lead. Learning and leadership are so closely linked. To be an effective leader you need to constantly be looking to learn from your mistakes in situations, how to approach different people and sell to different audiences. The beauty of life is that no one person or situation is ever exactly the same. Mix different people with different situations and you have countless possibilities you will face as a leader. Life is dynamic – it isn’t static, always changing, always shifting and never the same. To effectively lead, one needs to adapt. If you don’t you will fail as a leader and competitors who do this will drive you out.

Take opportunities to learn, develop and grow yourself to be a more effective leader

Learning is important. In a recent Deloitte study, Global Human Capital Trends 2015, 85% of the respondents cited learning as being either important or very important. Yet, according to the study, more companies than ever report they are unprepared to address this challenge.

The Harvard Business Review had this to say about the matter:

“Leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode. Leaders that stay on top of society’s changes do so by being receptive and able to learn. In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years, leaders bear a responsibility to renew their perspective in order to secure the relevance of their organizations.”

There are plenty of opportunities for you to learn all around you. You can look at yourself, look to your colleagues or peers and look at reviewing the different situations that arise and how you handle them. Sometimes, organisations will not clearly define these opportunities for you but in most cases there are things you can do yourself to create this environment of learning to help you grow to become a more effective leader. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Spend some time in self-reflection. Every good leader I have read about or heard speak does this. They spend time in the morning or evening reflecting on their performance, why they made certain decisions, what they could do differently, the effect they had on others, what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses. Learn from your failures, use them to grow and make positive change. Read more about how you can turn failure into success here.
  • Get feedback from others. Look to get formal or informal feedback from colleagues, those you report to and clients where possible. Ask them to be open, honest and critical. I find it helps if you also provide them feedback to reciprocate and to build it up as a regular occurrence.
  • Review your projects and programmes. Spend time reviewing what went well and what could be improved for future projects by building in regular retrospectives (read about retrospectives here). Get critical feedback on your performance as a leader. Ask people if they felt empowered, if they had opportunities to be creative, innovative and learn and grow.
  • Log your learning. Take note of what you learn – especially areas for you to improve on. If you note it down you are less likely to forget it and you have something to hold you to account. That’s the whole reason I do my weekly reflection log posts. Check out this example.
  • Read and listen. Some good articles to start with on this blog are: Defining leadership and the three most important traits a leader needs to develop to be effective, Top tips for making yourself effective goalsHow to be a master decision maker and get better outcomes and resultsTop tips to lead with emotional intelligence and succeed. Here are some of my favourite books that you can grab on Amazon and that will help open your eyes to different ideas and perspectives and ultimately help you grow as a leader.
  1. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek – “In 2009, Simon Sinek started a movement to help people become more inspired at work, and in turn inspire their colleagues and customers. Since then, millions have been touched by the power of his ideas, including more than 28 million who’ve watched his TED Talk based on START WITH WHY – the third most popular TED video of all time.” – Get it on Amazon US / Amazon UK.
  2. Principles by Ray Dalio – “In Principles, Dalio shares what he’s learned over the course of his remarkable career. He argues that life, management, economics, and investing can all be systemized into rules and understood like machines. The book’s hundreds of practical lessons, which are built around his cornerstones of “radical truth” and “radical transparency,” include Dalio laying out the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams. He also describes the innovative tools the firm uses to bring an idea meritocracy to life, such as creating “baseball cards” for all employees that distill their strengths and weaknesses, and employing computerized decision-making systems to make believability-weighted decisions.” – Get it on Amazon US / Amazon UK.
  3. The art of war by Sun Tzu – “The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu a high-ranking military general, strategist and tactician, and it was believed to have been compiled during the late Spring and Autumn period or early Warring States period. The text is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare. It is commonly known to be the definitive work on military strategy and tactics of its time. It has been the most famous and influential of China’s Seven Military Classics, and for the last two thousand years it remained the most important military treatise in Asia, where even the common people knew it by name. It has had an influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, legal strategy and beyond.” – Get it on Amazon US / Amazon UK
  4. Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly – “Drawing on the idea that people who are happy in their lives make the most loyal employees, bestselling author Kelly draws the connection between dream fulfilment and job satisfaction. Offering a revolutionary parable that goes beyond the work goals of pay rises and promotions, Kelly looks at the dreams that really matter to employees and poses an innovative solution for companies to help them achieve those dreams.” – Get it on Amazon US / Amazon UK.
  5. Blue ocean strategy by W. Chan Kim et al – “Recognized as one of the most iconic and impactful strategy books ever written, Blue Ocean Strategy, now updated with fresh content from the authors, argues that cutthroat competition results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool. Based on a study of 150 strategic moves (spanning more than 100 years across 30 industries), the authors argue that lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating “blue oceans”―untapped new market spaces ripe for growth. Blue Ocean Strategy presents a systematic approach to making the competition irrelevant and outlines principles and tools any organization can use to create and capture their own blue oceans.” – Get it on Amazon US / Amazon UK.

Knowing your weaknesses makes you strong

If you take the stance that there is still more learning and more growth to be had and that you aren’t just a born leader then you will be on the road to become a better leader. In this case, you understand your weaknesses, you identify them and you work on them. However, working on  your weaknesses isn’t always the right thing to do. In fact I would argue that in some cases it is better to focus on your strengths, but in knowing and understanding your weaknesses you can surround yourself with a team of people that support those weaknesses. An understanding of yourself is key here and continuing to learn about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses and how to exploit them, can help you to grow and succeed. Did you know that Michelangelo was forced to build the Sistine chapel by Pope Julius II? Michelangelo complained that he was not a painter, but a sculptor. Sculpting was his strength and painting in fresco was his weakness, so how did he overcome this? Michelangelo surrounded himself with expert painters. He gathered all the experts he knew in Florence to come to Rome and to teach him. He transformed his weakness into a strength by bringing in those who could support his weaknesses. Michelangelo also gave us one of my favourite quotes:

“Beauty is the purgation of superfluities”

Meaning that real beauty comes to light through getting rid of the excess, just like a sculptor chipping away at stone until it transforms into a beautiful piece of art. I think it’s important to have the same view of ourselves. Success comes when we remove the things that hinder – namely the ego. The ego that says you don’t have weaknesses and you don’t need to learn anymore. Get rid of it, it has no place on your road to successful and effective leadership.


Don’t be arrogant in thinking there is no more for you to learn. You will be your own roadblock to success and effective leadership. Look for opportunities to learn and execute and measure. I shall leave you with these wise words from Lao Tzu:

“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”


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