Are Leaders Born?

“Are leaders born?”

This is an interesting question that I am often asked in the leadership development programs we run at 5.12 Solutions.

We believe that leadership isn’t about being charismatic and it’s not about some magical qualities that are bestowed upon you at birth. And you don’t have to go through special forces training as a rite of passage. Leadership is about employing key skills and behaviors on a consistent basis.

And those skills and behaviors can be learned.

In other words, we can develop our competencies as leaders (learned skills). These are things such as learning how to relate to others, create a shared vision, and establish performance goals. Other skills might include learning how to provide performance feedback, utilize a positive discipline process, reward and recognize people, and delegate effectively.

But there is also an aspect of leadership development that can be learned that involves developing our internal capacities. These are our internal beliefs and assumptions about ourselves that drive much of our behavior. They are ingrained in who we are and born out of what we learned to survive and be successful at a young age. And, our capacities have a significant impact on our leadership effectiveness.

Levels of Development

To maximize our growth as leaders, it’s important to know that you as a human develop through very specific stages over the course of your life. And along the way you can become better equipped to handle the complexities of today’s fast-paced and interdependent business environment. By understanding the stages through which people develop, you’ll be able to set forth a path to increase your effectiveness as a leader.

One of the best frameworks for understanding these stages that I’ve found is eloquently described in the book Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs. In their well researched book, the Authors identify five levels of leadership agility: Expert, Achiever, Catalyst, Co-Creator, and Synergist.

Let’s explore these at a high level. Please note that these are taken directly from Leadership Agility.

Expert Level (45% of managers): Experts are so named because they’re strongly motivated to develop subject-matter expertise, and because they assume that a leader’s power comes from expertise and positional authority. Experts are the least agile, but are more effective than the 10% that makeup the Pre-expert levels. They have a tactical orientation and a capacity for analytical problem solving and are best suited for environments where success can be achieved by making incremental improvements to existing strategies.

Achiever Level (35% of managers): They are highly motivated to accomplish outcomes valued by their organization. They realize that a leader’s power comes not only from authority and expertise but also from motivating others by making it challenging and satisfying to contribute to important outcomes. They have a capacity for strategic thinking and can be highly effective in complex environments where the pace of change requires significant shifts in corporate strategy.

Catalyst Level (5% of managers): They are able to use the abilities of the Expert and Achiever and also understand the power of vision and participation. They are motivated to create a participative culture capable of achieving valued outcomes over the longer-term. They are open to change, able to rethink their assumptions, and have a visionary orientation.

Co-Creator Level (4% of managers): They are committed to developing genuinely collaborative team and organizational relationships rooted in a sense of shared purpose. They understand the interdependencies between business and the rest of life.  With a deep awareness of their emotional capacities and ability to engage in dialogue and develop creative, win-win solutions, Co-Creators are well equipped for long-term success in the rapidly changing and often disruptive global economy.

Synergist Level (1% of managers): Although subtly different than Co-Creators, this level of leadership agility is represented by the leader’s ability to fully rain in the flow of the present experience, giving the leader the ability to stand out in contentious and chaotic situations. This ability to remain centered among competing demands enables them to drive solutions solutions that are beneficial for all parties involved, even in the midst of the most severe conflicts and chaos.

The book Leadership Agility also refers to a concept described as “Post-Heroic Leadership.” In their research they found that 90% of leaders in the Pre-expert, Expert, and Achiever levels operate from a “Heroic” mindset. That is, they assume sole responsibility for setting their organization’s objectives, coordinating the activities of their subordinates, and managing performance. This form of leadership worked well prior to our current era of constant change and complex interdependence. In today’ environment of collaboration, team work, and continuous organizational change, heroic leadership under utilizes subordinates, over-controls, and crushes innovation.

So, what’s the path forward?

Today’s environment requires that we have more leaders who operate at the levels beyond Achiever. But to do so, and to make significant strides in improving your effectiveness, leaders must explore their inner capacities and internal beliefs that drive their behaviors that I referred to at the beginning of this article.

Limiting Internal Beliefs: Controlling

To help our clients explore their limiting internal beliefs and advance through the levels of leadership agility, we utilize a tool called The Leadership Circle. It is a 360 degree instrument that not only measures twelve leadership competencies, but also has a second and deeper layer. It helps a person analyze their internal assumptions, ways of thinking, and habits that determine a great deal of their leadership behaviors – most of which decrease effectiveness. The Leadership Circle refers to these dimensions as “Reactive Leadership Styles” because they limit effectiveness, authentic expression, and empowering leadership – all key components to moving higher in the levels of leadership agility. There are three key dimensions within the Reactive Styles – Controlling, Protecting, and Complying. We’ll explore each in the sections below, starting with Controlling in this post.

The Controlling Dimension measures the extent to which you establish a sense of personal worth through task accomplishment and personal achievement. People high in the Controlling Dimension will often look for “perfect” solutions, have a strong need to get ahead, and have a tendency for forceful and aggressive communication. There are a number of strengths that correspond to the Controlling Dimension. For example, a leader might be seen as a “take charge” kind of person and be willing to step up when others may not. The challenge is that leaders with an overly Controlling tendency generally believes they must excel heroically, perform flawlessly, and dominate.

There are a number of internal beliefs that people with high Controlling tendencies use to organize their identity.

  • I stay safe by taking charge
  • Only the strong survive and I will be one of them
  • I need to triumph over others to feel good about myself
  • Anything less than perfect is not OK
  • I am a valuable person when people look up to me with admiration
  • The world is made up of winners and losers
  • Being less than others is unacceptable and threatens my security
  • Failure, of any proportion, could lead to my demise

Leaders with these beliefs are often seen as aggressive, strong, invulnerable, right, better than others, and heroic. As a result, they tend to struggle with relationships and collaboration that are required to effectively make the consequential decisions that impact an organization.

Do any of the internal beliefs above describe you? How are they impacting your leadership effectiveness? What can you do to challenge those internal assumptions? What would be the impact?

Limiting Internal Beliefs: Protecting

The Protecting Dimension measures the belief that you can protect yourself and establish a sense of self-worth through withdrawal, remaining distant, hidden, cynical, superior, and/or rational. Essentially, people stay safe by acting aloof and maintaining distance in their relationships. Safety means being above it all. This stance can come from an inner lack of confidence, self-doubt, inferiority, or its opposite superiority. It may well be that you project an air of superiority, needing to be right, find fault, and put others down as a strategy to build yourself up.

There are a number of internal assumptions that people with high Protecting tendencies use to organize their identity.

  • For me to be right, others have to be wrong (or vice versa)
  • I am worthwhile if I am right and find the weaknesses in others
  • I am valuable because of my superior capability or insight
  • I am not good enough
  • I am safe and acceptable if I remain small, uninvolved, and avoid risk

Leaders with these internal beliefs are often seen as acting superior, cynical, and faultfinding. And, these tendencies are often intertwined with a strong streak of self-criticism and self-doubt causing you to hold back from making your full contribution, not asserting yourself and playing small.

Do any of these internal beliefs above describe you? How are they impacting your leadership effectiveness? What can you do to challenge those internal assumptions? What would be the impact?

Limiting Internal Beliefs: Complying

The Complying Dimension measures the extent to which you get a sense of self-worth and security by complying with the expectations of others rather than acting on what you intend and want. Complying behavior suggests that you tend to relinquish power to others and to the circumstances of life. You tend to see the world as full of powerful people who can control or protect you. Because of this belief, you tend to submit to those in power and comply with their expectations. You do this to gain safety and win approval. You tend to equate personal worth and security with meeting and living within others’ expectations.

There are a number of internal assumptions that people with high Complying tendencies use to organize their identity.

  • I am okay if people like me.
  • I am worthy when others approve of me.
  • I need to live up to others’ expectations to succeed.
  • I can stay safe by supporting others.
  • The world is a dangerous place. Caution makes me safe.
  • Loyalty, harmony, and getting along to get along protect me from disapproval.

Leaders with these internal beliefs tend to have a constant need to please others, belong, be sensitive, needed, and liked. They often say “yes” when they really want to say “no,” double check with authorities before taking action, couch their language so that others will not have strong emotional responses, and cautiously manage what they do to stay in the good graces of others.

Do any of these internal beliefs above describe you? How are they impacting your leadership effectiveness? What can you do to challenge those internal assumptions? What would be the impact?

Where do You Go From Here?

This article started out with the question, “Are leaders born?”

Our response has been “No.” Leadership can be learned. But, if you want to significantly elevate your effectiveness, you have to focus not just on competencies, but also you internal capacities.

Here are some recommended next steps to guide your path forward.

1. Review the levels of leadership agility outlined in this article. At what level are you currently operating? At what level do others perceive you operating?

2. Review the three Limiting Internal Beliefs (Controlling, Protecting, and Complying).  If you want to be more effective at your current level of leadership agility or even move to the next level, challenge the assumptions you have about yourself that in part drive your leadership behaviors.

3. Based on the steps above, create a leadership development action plan by identifying 1-3 behaviors you will start implementing over the course of the next 30 days. After those become routine, identify 1-3 more behaviors you will implement on a regular basis.

Leadership development is really about personal growth. The most effective leaders know that it is a never-ending journey. So, take the steps today to ignite your leadership potential and the potential of the people around you by recognizing that leadership can be learned.

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