Is being a leader something you’re born with?
What does it take to be a great leader? Isn’t that the question we reluctantly ask ourselves whenever we encounter an inspiring image of a great leader. They look like the superhero that rushes in to save the day from the evil powers of the world. And for a moment, we envision standing tall in front of our direct reports while leading with fortitude and compassion. Everyone cheers and we are the hero, the great leader. The kind of leader who inspires transformation and productive change through the motivation of staff while championing the organizational mission.
An honest look at our history would reveal that we more often portray the evil powers of leadership more than the good. My story is no different.
Over the years, my leadership style has been called many names. It took about five years for those names to shift from less flattering expressions that reflected my naivety to more palatable phrases like “good”. Even still, some of those adjectives used to describe me like “disruptive” and “fast-paced” do not have the same inspiring syllabic enunciation as “trans-for-ma-tion-al”.
Transformational just roles off the tongue nicely. It doesn’t require a lot of explanation. And I doubt there’d be much argument against the inherently positive nature of the word.
Most of us would appreciate being recognized by our peers and direct reports as a Transformational Leader. The name just sounds awesome! But similar to the other inspiring leadership term, Visionary Leader, attaining that recognition can be daunting.
Is it possible to learn to become a Transformational Leader or is the name more descriptive of an inherent style that can only be developed, not taught?
We can’t really begin to answer this question before we first define what the word leader means. There are many words that popular culture seems to have watered down over the years making their definition diluted and ambiguous. Leader is one such word.
I have heard the word leader used to describe everything from taking responsibility for one’s personal actions and emotions to frontline employment that simply executes a basic task. The word leader is quickly becoming synonymous with human being. When a word becomes overused it loses its effect. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we must supplement our words with adjectives like “transformational” and “visionary” just to add clarity and meaning.
If we adopt a more traditional definition of leader, then Transformational Leader becomes someone in charge who “identifies needed change, creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group” (definition here).
Can we actually teach transformation?
Transformational Leadership as a teachable skill assumes that the gap between where we are and the needed transformation is simply insufficient knowledge. A skill can be taught from ground zero with competency developed through practice and application. The phrase Think it-Be it-Do it would support this approach and encourage people, regardless of talent, to get educated and become a Transformational Leader.
I guess anything can be taught. I am a big fan of the academic setting and love creating learning opportunities for people. Putting together a curriculum is one thing. Testing it to determine comprehension and then operationalizing this knowledge is a whole different story. If we put more emphasis on the application of knowledge then there may be less need for all of these adjectives to explain one’s leadership style.
Transformational Leadership as a talent assumes that there are unteachable aspects that live in the person who is a leader. This talent may be untapped or even wasted, but it exists as potential prior to the teaching. The phrase “he/she has talent” is popular in sports and references the intangible potential a person demonstrates independent of any knowledge. We see this potential identified even at very young ages without much prior coaching.
I personally think that in order for Transformational Leadership to be effectively taught leadership talent must first be present. I also hold the controversial view that unless someone is a leader at heart, he or she can not truly learn to be one. Not all human beings are leaders. Not all leaders are Transformational Leaders.
And that’s ok.
Perhaps we have so closely tied worth and value as a human being with the title Leader that to say that someone does not have leadership is to dehumanize them to some degree. But whatever we decide to call it, there will always be some people who take charge and inspire change. And there will always be a team of people that take some responsibility in making that change happen. Let’s start appreciating people for who they are and recognize their contributions. Everyone has talent. But we all don’t have to have the same talent.
What do you think: Can someone without inherent talent for Transformational Leadership be taught it? I’d love to hear your comments!
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.