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Leadership 101 – Inborn or Learned?

The case for situational leadership

When I facilitate leadership workshops, usually before lunch break of the first day of three, there always appears this question. It emerges from the table on the farther right corner of the room. They have been quiet until now at that table, listening attentively but refraining from questions. They participated during the morning ice breakers, but have receded to the comfort of the corner. During my occasional strolls, I urge them to comment and question, and it is partially fruitful. And then - Bang!!! The question is asked. Almost blurted in a half apologetic tone, the person is almost sorry for asking. He didn't intend to cut my line of reasoning and the progress of the workshop, but he just had to ask. We are discussing leadership concepts and the great man theory of leadership; and it seems proper to ask. This question can be phrased in many ways - however it usually looks like this: "Can leadership be learnt at all? Aren't leaders natural - either you have it or you don't?..."

The ramifications of the question are dire indeed. It is probably one of the toughest to tackle in leadership workshops. Since, if the answer is a resounding yes: leadership is a genetic trait! Why are we spending the time on leadership training? Heck - if the answer is yes - why should we have human resource departments? What is the use of coaching and mentoring? Why are we reading all the leadership books? And why the heck am I sitting in a leadership training sessions?

And it seems so right - the Yes answer - it seems so correct - if we look around it appears to be the true answer. If someone is a leader, to the observer, his/her leadership seems natural and inborn. Often, it is very comforting to perceive leadership as an inborn trait - since it gives people an excuse to step down from leading in complex business environments. This way, we can let someone else, someone more suitable who has the correct DNA to lead.

Yes seems to be the right answer until you stop and reflect. What do you think? Is leadership a capability that can be learnt or is it inborn?

If leadership is inborn, how would you explain the familiar situation that I am positive you have witnessed: great leaders who had been able to turn around a business unit, are transferred to revamp another business unit.  In the new environment they are not so great. They aren't able to perform as they have before. Their reports resent them, their manager evaluates them poorly their colleagues shun them.

What happened?

How is it possible that someone who was an incredible leader in one business setting is mediocre in another? If we believe in the inborn leadership theory (also known as the great man theory) this doesn't make sense. A leader remains great regardless of the situation.

Are you experiencing now an ‘Aha' moment? Leadership can't be all inborn - there are actually leadership elements that are learnable, especially in the present ever-changing global environment.

Contemporary approaches in leadership have abandoned the concept that leadership is an inborn trait. Rather, the concept of situational leadership has emerged. Situational leadership articulates that effective leaders are the ones able to change their behavior according to the situation at hand.  It identifies leadership styles relevant to specific situations. According to research, the enablers of situational leadership are empathy, active listening and a propensity to understand complex human and team interactions.

The challenge in leadership is all about applying the proper situational behavior. We have to analyze the situation and shift from our incumbent approach towards a situation, to the style which the situation warrants and which leads to the optimal outcome. By integrating and implementing ideas of situational leadership in our work place we can become better leaders. However, transforming the leadership style to a situation requires awareness, and practice. In Sweden, for example, participative-collaborative leadership styles rules, even when the situation necessitates other leadership styles.  At times when a forceful dictating style is essential, such as at a crisis scenario, business leaders who aren't trained in situational leadership fail to adapt. I often witness it when conducting a thrilling exercise in which a team has to reach an agreement that provides individual and team scoring in a limited time. The contemporary collaborative leadership style that is so common nowadays, fails to deliver an acceptable solution which also provides the team with a maximum score. Without altering the leadership pattern the participants are stuck in their limiting styles. Understanding that different situations require different styles is key in effective leadership and YES it can be learnt.

Want to learn more about leadership - read Michael's Influence and Leadership Building Rapport in Teams where he further discusses the concepts of situational leadership and presents two models.

Influence and leadership michael amazon book

Michael facilities powerful and exciting leadership workshops - invite him to keynote on the topic and lead a two day leadership development workshop.

More Stories By Michael Nir

Michael Nir - President of Sapir Consulting - (M.Sc. Engineering) has been providing operational, organizational and management consulting and training for over 15 years. He is passionate about Gestalt theory and practice, which complements his engineering background and contributes to his understanding of individual and team dynamics in business. Michael authored 8 Bestsellers in the fields of Influencing, Agile, Teams, Leadership and others. Michael's experience includes significant expertise in the telecoms, hi-tech, software development, R&D environments and petrochemical & infrastructure industries. He develops creative and innovative solutions in project and product management, process improvement, leadership, and team building programs. Michael's professional background is analytical and technical; however, he has a keen interest in human interactions and behaviors. He holds two engineering degrees from the prestigious Technion Institute of Technology: a Bachelor of civil engineering and Masters of Industrial engineering. He has balanced his technical side with the extensive study and practice of Gestalt Therapy and "Instrumental Enrichment," a philosophy of mediated learning. In his consulting and training engagements, Michael combines both the analytical and technical world with his focus on people, delivering unique and meaningful solutions, and addressing whole systems.