I think leadership is 70% – 80% nature and the rest conditioned or trained. If business schools screened for natural ability there would be far fewer students pursuing graduate degrees in order to “become” leaders. If book retailers screened for natural leadership ability before granting permission to buy more than one or two books on leadership, very few leadership books would be sold.

In my executive coaching practice I ask my corporate clients to give me (and for them to invest in) only their best and the brightest. I don’t want to train leadership skills, I want to train leaders. Those who already have the raw material and want executive development including adding more skills and awareness to their innate abilities. Some managers are placed in leadership positions, knowing they lack the leadership gene and want to do the best with what they have. Many who think they are leaders suffer from self-deception.

The natural leaders I run into understand that effective leadership is pretty simple. In spite of running large and complex organizations they distill the key elements of leadership down to a few basic tenants.

Last week I attended a talk given by Ed Mueller,  retired CEO of Qwest Communications (prior to that at PacBell and Ameritch). Ed’s talk was short and pretty dry but his content confirmed my experience. According to Ed,  good leaders have:

  1. Passion for what they do.
  2. The ability to simplify complex issues and decisions.
  3. The ability to know what’s most important and focus on that.
  4. Good judgment.
  5. Intellectual curiosity.
A few other good takeaways from his talk:
  1. Watch for these three red flags (the three S’s) when someone is trying to make a business case: a) The move will be “strategic”; b) The move will be “synergistic”; c) If we don’t move “someone else will do it.”
  2. Be wary of using measurements based on percentages. They often lead to unintended consequences. Best to use absolute numbers.
  3. Instincts about a business come with experience. Ed ran Williams and Sonoma for a couple of years in spite of him spending his entire business career in telecom. He credited his weak performance at W and S on not having the instincts for the business.

Maybe leadership is like loosing weight. Losing weight seems to require one or both of  two things: eating less, moving more. Yet, like leadership, there are more books released every day on dieting. You either understand the concepts and do them or you don’t. More books and more education and training are not going to help if you lack the natural ability for leadership (and the discipline for weight loss).

What am I missing?