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Are leaders born or made?

The perennial question when it comes to leadership.

We all display leadership from time-to-time. Whenever we seek to influence another person, or group of people, we are leading. For example, when you get a group together to see a movie you are influencing their decisions and compelling them to do something. Leadership, like trust, is a social phenomenon–it only exists when people come together.

How far you go with your leadership will depend on your drive. Some will seek to become leaders in their work or vocation. Some have a natural talent for leadership, others don’t.

When it all boils down to it, leadership is about two things: vision and trust.

Trust can be earned. By practising the leadership skills that engender trust you can become a better leader. However, the size of the vision you can cast will determine how far you go with your leadership.

Vision has been defined as a combination of ‘a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be’. If you have vision, you will always be able to say, ‘It’s not over’ (Gumble, N.). Some people have a natural ability to cast a vision, to see what could be, others don’t have that natural ability.

For example, when looking at places to buy some people can see potential in a run-down house, what it could become, while some will just see the run-down house, and still others will accept it for what it is and move in regardless.

Or another example: A club, church, or music group may be mediocre. Some people see the diminishing community and choose to leave and join something else. Those with the ability to vision see unlocked potential in the members and what it could be.

Without vision, seeing a different future or possibilities, you are simply managing.

Leading is the ability to take a group of people and realising the vision. This can only be done if those you are compelling to join you on the journey are willing to trust you. Otherwise you will have to resort to doing it all on your own (which will never work out as well), or coercing people through manipulation (and that rarely ends well).


I’m the busiest!

Here is my medal to prove it! I am officially the busiest person in the organisation, and therefore the most important! Notice me as I wear my medal proudly around my neck.

Don’t you love watching people? It is always fascinating at conferences. At every break there is invariably the rush to the door, mobile phone to the ear, just checking in. “Are you sure you’re doing ok without me; you can’t be, surely?”

What do truly great leaders actually occupy themselves with? What takes their time, what do they prioritise, what should be important and why?

I heard a good phrase this week, “I’m not busy, I’m distracted”. I hear that the average Australian now spends 10 hours a week on social media. How on task are you really and how truly productive are you?

Contrary to the popular myth, leaders don’t have to the the busiest people in the organisation, the most stressed, do the most hours, do the work for others, be the hero against whose everyone else’s measures their worth. It isn’t a competition–the actual prize isn’t worth it. Instead they should be good role models for a healthy work-life balance.

Leaders should never be too busy that they become inaccessible: the person that no one wants to disturb because their issues would seem too trivial or insignificant in comparison.

I like to set goals for the things I would like to achieve in a day. But I have to constantly remind myself that sometimes the distraction may be far important than the goal, particularly if it is to do with the people you serve.

The staff member who comes into your office wanting the vent, or who is just in need of a sympathetic ear. It is in fostering these relationships, the giving of your time, that a leader is doing their most important work. It is then that they are building trust, and ultimately trust is far more important to an organisation because it unlocks the huge potential of the ‘we’.

The moment you set yourself goals that can only be achieved behind your desk you are moving from leading to managing (unless it is to prepare an inspirational speech that articulates a compelling vision for the future). Of course these things have to be done, but not in the name of leadership, rather in the name of necessity to ensure the smooth functioning of the organisation.

There is nothing wrong with being extremely busy, but what you are saying when you place that medal around your neck is that you don’t have time for others, you don’t have the time to cultivate what is the most important task of a leader. As a leader one of your key jobs is building the capacity of others and empowering them to do their roles so you can achieve the organisation’s vision together.

Take the medal off. Pop it in the draw. Remember, you should never be too busy for the people you serve.


Leading or managing?

We often throw around the words leadership and management as though they are interchangeable terms. They are not. Leadership and management are different.

Blanchard offers what I think is one of the simplest, but best definitions of leadership. Anytime you are seeking to influence another person you are leading.

Covey paints a wonderful illustration to explain the difference between leadership and management. Imagine, if you will, a team of people clearing a path through a dense jungle. The only tools they have are machetes, axes and saws. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree and yells, “this way, clear this way.” The manager is the one organising the people, creating rosters to ensure the work gets done as efficiently and effectively as possible. Together the destination is reached.

Both leadership and management are necessary, but they are two different sets of skills. Some people are excellent managers, but are not leaders. These people make excellent 2ICs. Some leaders are terrible managers, but they can effectively garner the trust of those people following them in order to achieve a vision. It is the rare few who have both sets of skills.

It is funny how the marketplace is filled with leadership development courses, but few on management training. Somehow the concept of management isn’t as appealing. We forget that without brilliant managers, a leader’s vision will never come to fruition.

To be truly effective and credible, one who has empathy for the people they seek to lead, I would argue that you need both sets of skills. Your passion for leadership will be shaped on the factory floor where you learn the trade and observe how leaders before you effectively influence the people around them.



This is what I have learned and try to practise: Being controlled in every circumstance

Organisational and leadership author, Stephen Covey[1], has identified the ability to ‘establish, extend, and restore trust’ as the ‘key leadership competency of the new, global economy’.

According to Covey, the number one role of a leader is to inspire, build and sustain trust. For organisations, the effect of trust goes beyond leadership; it has significant impact on a company’s ability to innovate.

Consider the following account of a person who was publicly berated by his boss:

In one sense, the experience reminded me of military training: the drill sergeant yelling obscenities in the face of the new recruit in an attempt to break him. In some weird way that behaviour has an objective, this experience left me feeling humiliated. I felt like a small child being told off in front of his siblings. It had a crushing and lasting impact on both me and the other people present.

For my boss, the concept of leadership was about control, wielded in such a way that we were left with no doubt as to who the person in authority was. She had control, but she didn’t have respect, and certainly didn’t have the trust of her staff.

Fortunately (hopefully) this kind of behaviour is not the norm in workplaces. But nonetheless, it highlights an important lesson for any leader, regardless of their concept of leadership: Trust is key and trust is gained by always being calm and controlled.

Once lost, trust is very hard to get back. In the above example, the leader chose to throw trust away by treating people abysmally, but trust can be lost by less extreme leakages such as incompetence, poor listening skills, poor decision-making, and a whole host of other reasons, but essentially through what can be summed up as poor leadership.

When I go to see my boss it is usually because I have a problem that I am having trouble solving. Sometimes it is because I need to confess that I have ‘stuffed up’, and as a result a complaint might be coming their way.

While an awkward situation to be in, I feel a sense of trust because I know she will calmly listen to me. I know what I am getting every time. She is predictable, calm, controlled.

It has been a tough week for me as a leader. I have had little sleep. I know when I am sleep deprived my ability to control my emotions becomes compromised. Knowing this about myself is the first step in ensuring that I remain calm and level-headed. I need to take more breaks, walk and get some fresh air, eat well and not rely on coffee.

How do the people who to look to you for leadership describe your demeanour? Are you predictable? What are your triggers? For me it is a lack of sleep, for others it can be a fear of making a mistake.

The first step to developing trust in your leadership is knowing yourself and what your triggers are. With that knowledge you can create strategies to ensure that you can always be controlled in every circumstance.

[1] Covey, S. (2006). The speed of trust. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Education for Peace

Last night I had dinner with a fellow Head Teacher. As we sat in a local restaurant in down town Shinjuku, Japan, he told me about his life growing up in Hiroshima. We had just visited the Atomic-Dome the day before, where world’s first nuclear bomb was detonated unleashing a fireball of 1000 degrees Celsius and winds over 1000km per hour.

While Hidenori wasn’t born when the bomb that annililated 75,000 people in an instant, and killed another 75,000 in the following weeks, his mother was. Her brother was amongst the casualties. She lived some 40km from the epi-centre. After the blast she walked the 40km to try and find him and offer what little help she could to the victims. What she saw was ever etched into her memory: the vision of a young mother walking towards her, her young baby fused to her body, the burns so bad.

This extra-ordinary Head Teacher had recently retired. For the past 37 years he worked for an International School in Tokyo, leading it for the last 10. The School isn’t an International one for expats, but for Japanese, created with the vision for a global education, underpinned with the belief that a greater appreciation and value for different cultures will contribute to a world of peace.

We talked about the importance of education in a world that is constantly traumatised by man’s never-ending greed. Amidst news of yet another terrorist attack and the release of Britain’s Chilcot Report, he spoke about an education that gives students opportunities to make friends across cultures and countries, an education that promotes understanding and peace.

Wise words this retired Head Teacher shared, “We only have a hundred years, we only have one life. We should teach our students to live each day, to be grateful for what they do have, finding beauty, joy and contentment in the little things. We should never allow language, cultural differences or alternate values to be a barrier to friendships that can rest on the beauty of life itself.”

Education should not just be about a country’s economic strategy, but about our humanity. Education should primarily be focused on raising the next generation of people who will inherit the world we leave them. Will that generation repeat the mistakes of the past, or will they truly seek peace?