The answer to this poser invokes the old, ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ argument. Maybe we need to study twins who were separated at birth, where one became a business leader, and determine what happened to the other? In the real world, business leaders, like any other leaders, come in all shapes and sizes. If you studied a group of successful business leaders from various industrial sectors, I would hazard a guess that they would have different personality traits and backgrounds.
The variants are likely to be greater still according to discipline. Successful business leader in the financial sector are unlikely to have the same personality characteristics as one in the high technology sector or in the hospitality arena. An accomplished executive in the insurance sector, however, may very well have more in common with a leader of a banking institute. I’m making some assumptions here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you are in agreement.
Are business leaders born or made?
Before we answer that question, let’s list some of the traits we would expect to find in a great business leader:
- Confident / Assertive (but not a bully!)
- Great listener
- Ability to prioritize
- Create emerging leaders
Can we learn to become a better business leader?
There is nothing in this list that cannot be learned or improved upon by a determined individual. One can read books, study, attend workshops, take drama classes, do mental exercises, etc. to gain many of the qualities listed. One can even be trained into ‘thinking big’. Mentors will often determine a CEO’s mental obstacles to growth and ask pointed questions to help him/her see what is holding them back. For example, now in its tenth year, the annual Women into Leadership conferences is a key event for all those interested in seeing leadership opportunities for women enhanced. Women into Leadership 2019 will examine how female leaders, at any grade, can enhance their skills to become the leader they aspire to be.
Acquiring listening skills
In my own ‘Effective
Leadership’ business workshop, we spend time in an interactive exercise to
experience both good and bad listening skills, and what it takes to become a
good listener. Listening and empathy are crucial leadership qualities to my
mind. The core skill is not just to
listen but also to learn to interpret what is said, both verbally and
How important is it to have empathy as part of your leadership skill-set?
A simple way of describing empathy is when we can visualise, identify being in the other person’s situation, and being able to communicate our feelings to the other person. Sometimes, to show understanding, we need to show vulnerability and describe something we have experienced which may not be showing us at our self-assured best. Think back to the last time you were upset about something you felt was important, and you expressed your feelings and the person you were confiding in understood and empathized. How did that make you feel?
What about confidence?
Listening and empathy are important, but confidence is also an essential leadership trait. As mentioned above, there are mental exercises to acquire several of the traits listed and practise does make perfect. ‘Fake it till you make it’ is another way of saying this, although I’m not sure I particularly advocate that saying as I don’t like anything fake. But if we take ‘confidence’, for example, and practise acting confidently in a drama class, it would be something we could pretend even if we aren’t feeling particularly self-assured. No-one will take direction from a dithering leader in a crisis, and the ability to hide one’s emotions where necessary and appear confident, is a crucial quality in a great leader.
Some people, however, will be perceived as ‘born leaders’, either because they make it look easy, and/or because from an early age they presented leadership qualities. I’m sure we can all summon up a picture of a child in the playground telling the other youngsters what to do and how to do it, and envisage those children following the instructions. Does that mean the child is a born leader? I would argue that some traits may come naturally but many will be determined by life experiences and education in both home and school environments. If a child is bullied, for example, that same child will often become a bully; though this will not apply in all cases. Chains can be broken. Note: not even great business leaders are infallible, and no-one always gets it right and, on occasion, we may mistake luck for great leadership.
Whether or not you are fortunate to have been born with some, most, or all the leadership qualities mentioned in this article, you can work on, and exercise, your leadership skills your entire life.
So, are business leaders born or made? It is not possible to give a conclusive answer, but either way, you can strive to be a better leader and never stop improving. Being a great business leader will serve you well in all walks of life. It’s up to you!
About the author
LGBA Associate Lesley Anne Rubenstein-Pessok, has spent her whole career in executive roles, working with and training start-ups and SME businesses, helping them to become more efficient, increase turnover, improve profitability, cost effectiveness and create strategies that pay off. She is an approved mentor for the London and Partners’ Business Growth Programme, as well as for other public funded programmes. To find out more about Lesley’s mentoring and business advisory services contact her by email at Lesley.firstname.lastname@example.org or call her on 020 8868 3163.