All of us are born with one trait in common: potential. Of course there are many potentials, but the key in dealing with potential is the stimulus and environment that brings it out. In this way, you can look at all of the members of your organization as potential leaders. It’s your job to provide the stimulus and environment that enables leaders’ potential.
First, let’s talk about leadership traits or characteristics. There are many schools of thought on which traits make the best leaders, but the most common traits tend to make sense. One trait is a sense of adventure or exploration – that’s not to say that each person has to be a Sir Edmund Hilary. It means that leaders seek out the answers in their environment, whether it’s Arctic exploration or the assembly line in a manufacturing company.
Not only is there an urge to explore, but there’s also a need or desire to innovate the findings. So leaders strive to determine why things work, but also want to improve them, to make them different, to make them new. Leaders must have an ability to influence through persuasion – this doesn’t necessarily mean that each person will have a charismatic, verbal approach to persuasion, it just means that each leader, in his or her own way, will be able to influence people.
Another common characteristic to leaders is the courage to speak out – if leaders see through their exploration that things could be different, they are going to say something about it instead of sitting on that bit of information. Leaders also have a strong belief and enthusiasm in themselves and what they and their organizations are doing.
These are not superhuman traits and characteristics. These are also not characteristics that one is born with or not – for example, if you grew up in an environment where risk-taking was considered foolish, you may not have a belief in yourself as a risk taker. But, in the right environment, who knows what your capabilities are?
So we’ve seen that leadership characteristics are most likely inherent and can be developed in the right environment. But how do we learn leadership? First of all, we learn leadership through observation and emulation. A potential leader will be on the constant lookout for someone to emulate – and it’s your responsibility to lead the way. Some leaders learn through trial and error – think about the number of well-known inventors, authors, and even actors who have been rejected over and over again.
With each rejection, these leaders adjusted something about their approach. Leaders learn through taking risks – potential leaders have already taken the time to examine their surroundings and look for ways to innovate. Taking the risk means a leader will speak out, persuade, or just make the change that leads to innovation. Finally, leaders learn through constant self-development. Leaders and potential leaders know that learning and development is a lifetime thing – it doesn’t stop when one reaches a goal or a plateau. And leaders are on the lookout for ways to develop at all times.
We’re all born with potential – and we can all develop the traits of leadership. That’s where you come in. You must create an environment that encourages leaders to be made, otherwise your leaders will rot on the vine or seek out environments that are conducive to their development. How can you provide the right environment and the right stimulus to “make” leaders?
There are many ways to encourage a leader-based and entrepreneurial environment. First, you must constantly encourage people to take action. Remember that speaking out is a leadership characteristic – your encouragement will allow people to challenge the status quo, innovate old ways of doing things, and to persuade you and others to follow them. In the same vein, you must persist with ideas that come to you. When people begin speaking out, insist that they champion the idea. When the idea gets to your level, you must persist as well.
What about failure? The culture you create should tolerate failure – not reward it, but tolerate it. That is to say, failure causes people to analyze the situation and fix the mistake. When innovation occurs, reward and promote the innovators. Many organizations fall into the trap of promoting because of time served or functional knowledge. If you are going to set up an environment that promotes leadership, you must promote the ones who speak out and make change – the ones who innovate.
An interesting, and sometimes difficult, way to promote the making of leaders is to allow the “skunkworks”. When Lockheed was developing some of its groundbreaking aircraft, such as the P-38 and the U2, the “skunkworks” was an unofficial group that was pretty much free of red tape and free to work on secret projects.
Management did not intervene as innovators got together under the radar to work on successful projects. How does this apply to you? Be aware that innovators will always be on the lookout for other innovators – don’t try to sanction or sponsor every team. In this environment, the “skunkworks” will allow leaders and potential leaders to speak out, try new things, and look for new ways to innovate.
Finally, you can provide an environment that promotes informality, both physically and emotionally. Try to knock down some of the old hierarchies that kept people from communicating – at the same time, make sure your physical space encourages hallway meetings, collaboration, and team interaction.
Leaders are definitely made – not born. But the environment will determine whether potential leaders can develop their talents – and it’s your responsibility to provide it.
By Connor Thomas