The essential notion in the contemporary leadership business is that good leaders aren’t born; rather, they’re slowly cooked through time and experience and learning. But let’s be candid for a moment and admit that, for better or worse, most high-ranking leaders tend to be naturals at the craft. They didn’t read books or take courses on how to lead; they just found themselves doing it. Here’s a simple, three-question test to see if you’re a natural leader:
- Is there something you really want?
- Do you instinctively rush out to chase after it?
- Are you able to get others to help you chase after it?
Don’t let all the leadership mantras confuse you; natural leadership is really not more complicated than that.
If you’re not a natural leader, then getting the things you most want in life won’t come easily. And don’t expect to change overnight as a result of a weekend seminar: Even with hard work and perseverance, you may not overcome your more passive, non-leaderly tendencies for 10 or 20 years.
But the good news is that the gradual progress is worth the effort. And by the end of the process, you can be as worthy a leader as the most natural ones.
Here I’ll confess that I’m not a natural leader. Those who can, do; and those who can’t, write books claiming to know a better way to do it. However, my older brother, Shabi, was a natural leader. He knew what he wanted, and he nudged, exhorted and pleaded with others to help him on his quest, and he could convince them that nothing could be more fun that that quest. I also suspect he and I would still be wearing matching Garanimals from Sears if he hadn’t intervened and told my immigrant parents, “We will henceforth wear cooler clothes, or die trying.” (In fact, if you’re trying to identify a natural leader, a great sign is that they successfully managed their own parents.)
By contrast, I could be so passive that I often wasn’t aware of exactly what I wanted. In some vague way, I wanted to be like my brother, I wanted to have the thrill of being the guy in charge. But even during the times I’ve ended up in leadership positions in my adult life, I’ve often struggled. I’d spend endless days agonizing over some key questions:
- If I give others a voice in the process of setting our goals and our vision, why are these ingrates so bored and disengaged?
- Can’t the people I’m working with agree on anything?
- Given that others can’t agree on where we should go, do I have any place to take them myself?
- And what will it take for people to like me more?
Thus, we leadership “non-naturals” go in with a fairly terrible recipe for effective leadership or peace of mind. Much of the multibillion-dollar leadership advice industry arose to cash in on such persons like us, telling us, “Let us show you how you can puff up your ego, in a way that benefits society and ensures your legacy.” Some of their advice is helpful. Some of it is just wishful thinking.
What Can the “Non-Natural” Leader Learn?
A famous management guru had made his name by saying that leadership can be taught. Years later, he would tell me, “Maybe it can’t be taught. But maybe it can be caught.”
Indeed, non-natural leaders can hope to catch some of the can-do attitude that drives the natural leader. But they need to avoid the trap of wanting to be in charge without actually having someplace to take people. They need to understand that leadership isn’t simply or mainly about power and authority.
Generally, natural leaders became who they were, not by accumulating power or influence, but by having a particular place they were excited to go in, and by being able to get others to come along for the ride (preferably in a driving capacity).
And when non-natural leaders begin to focus less on rising up a ladder and more on finding their true north within their inner compass, they have a chance to develop into leaders who are as effective (or more so) than the natural ones.
Rob Asghar is the author of Leadership Is Hell: How to Manage Well and Escape With Your Soul, available at Amazon. All proceeds support college scholarships for talented urban schoolchildren.