Natural Leaders vs. Actual Leaders

Natural leader probably isn't right term. It made you think of someone who's just plain good at something. And some people seem to be natural leaders - they have enormous followings for their engaging visions, they talk with authority and confidence, and we almost want to follow them. One might say that terrible word, "charisma."

But many (most?) of these people aren't leaders. They happen to have a certain set of preferential behaviors that work in many situations. As a result, they hear that they are "natural leaders" and feel confident in taking on greater challenges. It seems like they have the best vision for the organization, they have great relationships to make it happen, and so on. Most importantly, everyone believes that the person is capable of the change and the change is worth doing - the "to" in build relationships to turn a vision into reality.

Here's the problem: these kind of "natural" leaders aren't learning. They're not changing their behaviors to match different situations. Instead, they keep slamming the same behaviors into every challenge that comes along. In terms of the definition, what finally breaks them is the "to" I mentioned above - the connection between relationships and vision. People start to see that they are not actually using effective behaviors, and they realize the person is not capable of the change or that his or her change is worth doing. And that's when it all falls apart.

Here's how it plays out. Think about the leaders you know who fit this mold - I'll bet there is at least a few examples in your professional life. Or maybe news...

A person has a meteoric rise in an organization. They seem to do everything right, succeed at every challenge that comes their way. This is when people start saying "natural leader". So they get bigger and bigger challenges, more and more responsibility, more money, a bigger title. And then, one day, something fails. A product doesn't sell, a change effort is just plain wrong. Suddenly everyone is talking about how this person wasn't actually a natural leader, how they made others feel uncomfortable or worse, how their success came on the backs of everyone around them. It's like someone flipped a switch and it's suddenly OK to talk about the truth. The person vanishes into ignominy, and the organization tries to pick up the pieces.

All of this because someone was trying to be a leader without learning.

This is actually one of the things that got me started on the definition. Learning wasn't showing up in my studies of leadership in the way I expected, and I couldn't make sense of how it connected to all of the other behaviors that leadership experts were teaching. The first draft of the definition was actually just the first core: that leadership is the process of learning. And then I had to figure out what it was that people were learning to do, which brought the second and third cores.

This is, I might note, a mistake of the "T"s - specifically, traits and titles. When we see someone who seems to lead effortlessly, we think he or she has a certain set of characteristics that just make for leadership goodness. But, as diligent students of the definition, we know that learning is a critical part of leading. So, despite appearances, if you aren't learning, you aren't a leader - you're a disaster in progress.

What's the lesson? Make sure you are learning. Be damn sure the behaviors you are using are deliberate, and not just the ones that feel most comfortable. Learning is painful, but you have to do it. And watch out for people in leadership positions who aren't learning: they are dangerous.


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