“Contrary to the myth that only a lucky few can ever decipher the mystery of leadership, our research has shown us that leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices…it’s a process ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others. Liberate the leader in everyone, and extraordinary things happen…good leadership is an understandable and universal process.“ — James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations
The final level of mastery is to make it look natural. That’s a key reason so many people believe achievement comes from winning the gene pool — either you’re born with it or you’re not. A tiny number of athletes, performers, artists, musicians, or leaders succeed without really trying. But the sad reverse is often even more true. We all know people with tremendous natural talent who do very little with it. More common are ordinary people with average talent who take it to extraordinary levels.
For example, Michael Jordan didn’t have what it took to even make his high school basketball team. But he did have the drive and determination to eventually develop his skills to legendary levels of performance. Mark Twain once said, “It usually takes me about three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” We don’t see the thousands of hours of practice and study world-class performers put into their work. When we do see the final performance, it looks so natural. They’re so lucky we sigh.
It would be far more accurate for me to say, “I haven’t chosen to become a great performer, athlete, writer, musician…” That’s perfectly legitimate. The intensity and focus ordinary people need to become extraordinary masters is way beyond the price most people are willing to pay for success. It’s much easier to surrender to the Victimitis Virus by saying to myself “I am no good at speaking, writing, confronting issues, technology, being on time…”
English historian, Edward Gibbon, once pointed out a funny thing about “luck;” “the winds and the waves are always on the side of the best navigators.” Our development is our choice. Those accumulated choices prepare us to take advantage of unexpected opportunities or weaken our abilities and set us up to be victims of change. Our leadership development choices raise us up or drag us down.
The ancient Greek orator, Demosthenes, provides an inspiring example of choosing to become a leader. In order to rally Greek resistance to the threat of a Macedonian conquest, he became a legendary speaker — despite a major speech impediment. He overcame this natural limitation by learning how to talk with pebbles in his mouth. He trained his voice by reciting speeches and verses while running or climbing steep hills. To force himself to stay inside to study and practice he shaved half his head (how times have changed, today that would likely make him a celebrity). Another great orator, the Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero came along about 100 years after Demosthenes. He provides leadership development advice that applies as much today as it did in 50 BC. He listed “neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and study” as one of the six worst mistakes of humanity.
The nature versus nurture debate continues to rage in the field of leadership development. It’s easy to be confused by those fascinating and rare individuals who are natural born leaders. It doesn’t help when books and articles on some of the more famous leaders gloss over their warts, personality quirks, doubts, and problems in reaching their high levels of achievement.
Warren Bennis has studied hundreds of leaders in every field of human achievement, written over 20 books, and is professor and founding chair of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. He’s concluded, “Biographies of great leaders sometimes read as if they entered the world with an extraordinary genetic endowment, as if their future leadership role was preordained. Do not believe it. The truth is that major capacities and competencies of leadership can be learned if the basic desire to learn them exists.”