The CLEMMER Group does a lot of work with our Clients in defining and implementing (performance management systems, training, 360 feedback, etc) competency models for supervisors, managers, and executives. Recently I was working with a Client where the issue of nurture versus nature emerged yet again. The question was whether people can improve their emotional intelligence or leadership skills.

I hear excuses like “that’s just the way I am” or “strong leaders are naturals” so often from people who would rather slide below the line and wallow in the swamp, than take responsibility for their choices and change their reality. That’s why I deliberately put it in the #1 spot on the Wallow Words Tempting Ten list (see October 13 blog posting here for a quiz based on this list.)

In this section of Growing @ the Speed of Change (headlined “Why Don’t My Genes Fit?) I used these examples from the mounting evidence that our leadership skill level is a choice:

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”
Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California

“Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” “…if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise…the journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment.”
From a major study reported in Harvard Business Review. “….based on rigorous research (from over 100 leading scientists) that looked at exceptional performance using scientific methods that are verifiable and reproducible…”

Fortune magazine published an article entitled “Why Talent is Overrated” that addresses this critical self- and leadership-development question. The subtitle to the piece states, “The conventional wisdom about ‘natural’ talent is a myth. The real path to great performance is a matter of choice.”

The article gives an example of two young men who started working together at Proctor & Gamble in the late seventies. They were unremarkable recruits who did not stand out in any way early in their careers. Writer Geoff Colvin quotes one of them as recalling, “We were voted the two guys probably least likely to succeed.” Colvin goes on to write, “These two young men are of interest to us now for only one reason: They are Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer, who before age 50 would become CEOs of two of the world’s most valuable corporations, General Electric and Microsoft. Contrary to what any reasonable person would have expected when they were new recruits, they reached the apex of corporate achievement.”