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Great leaders possess unteachable flair

Financial times | lesley uren | 26 february 2016

There are no definitive findings to tell us whether leadership is innate or learned. The latest thinking in neuroscience suggests nature and nurture are so inextricably linked that they cannot be separated.

But while science has not answered the question, practitioners who have spent their careers searching for leadership potential inside organisations are much more convinced that the quality can be developed.

The UK’s Royal Air Force has spotted and developed talent for more than 100 years. Air Vice Marshal Andrew Turner, who is responsible for ensuring the RAF and the technical arms of the British army and navy have the skilled personnel they need for worldwide operations, believes that leadership is not innate.

“You can genuinely help people develop themselves, teach them about the stresses and strains of leadership from a young age and help them continue to learn throughout life,” he says.

Logic suggests that if leadership was simply an inborn quality, then all people who possess the necessary traits would eventually find themselves in leadership roles. But this is not the case. Leaders who should succeed sometimes fail, often because they will not change when their situation changes. This is more a learned than an innate response.

A lot of successful leadership development activity is about helping individuals spot their own strengths. For the RAF, this starts with cadets at the age of 12.

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The Air Cadets, the RAF’s 40,000-member strong organisation for 12 to 20 year olds, runs formal leadership training courses for cadets from the age of 17. Air Vice Marshal Turner believes the RAF can spot potential early on.

So if leadership can be developed and shaped from a young age, even if we do not definitively understand its genesis, what are we trying to shape? What makes a great leader?

Leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield believes it is wrong to describe leadership as a “skill”. To her, it is more of a “mindset, a disposition”. Much of it is about the way individuals communicate.

That means leaders need a much deeper understanding of how they appear to others, a much higher level of self-awareness.

Emotional intelligence — which is the ability to recognise other people’s emotions and use that knowledge to guide their behaviour — is critical for the leader of the future. But is it possible to develop emotional intelligence?

Gianluca Ventura, HR director for Africa, Middle East, Asia and Pacific at Vodafone, believes these communication skills can be learned.

“We are working a lot on self-perception,” he says. “One of the exercises I was asked to do was to look at a video of myself speaking without audio and the facilitator challenged me to think about my body language and asked me: ‘Would you trust this guy? Would you believe him?’ When you see yourself in this light you really understand the emotional impact you are having on people.” 

This may make sense, but it feels more akin to learning the mechanics of leadership rather than the flair.

Truly great leaders have a vision and passion that comes from somewhere else — a willingness to make their voice heard, often when confronted with opposition.

Yet no one seems to suggest this can be taught. Indeed, almost all parties in the nature-nurture debate appear to accept that there are a gifted few whose flair is not necessarily genetic, but instead comes from a complex web of personality factors.

So if we do not have the tools to dissect leadership and really understand its genesis, we will have to accept that although we can learn to lead and make the most of what we have, few of us will be great leaders.

Lesley Uren is a talent management expert at PA Consulting Group

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