You will likely at some point have heard the question asked: are leaders born or made? Yes, yes, I know, it’s a really annoying question at the best of times but it is an important one nonetheless. And you will no doubt also have heard people offer opinions for, and against, the nature-nurture debate. You probably have your own views on the matter. Now, according to a new study, the answer to this question is that yes they are born, or at least in part, because researchers have identified something which is being touted as the ‘leadership gene’.
In a study which was recently referred to in the Leadership Quarterly, an international research team estimated that a quarter of the observed variations in leadership behaviour between individuals can be explained by genes passed down from their parents. Lead scientist Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, from University College London, explained the findings: “We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations.” Dr De Neve also added, “As recent as last August, Professor John Antonakis, who is known for his work on leadership, posed the question: ‘is there a specific leadership gene?’ This study allows us to answer yes – to an extent.”
So, effective leadership is now beyond the grasp of most of us then, reserved for the chosen few? Should we all just give up?
Clearly not, and this findings regarding the rs4950 genotype have more to do with predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership roles than it has to do with the effectiveness of individual managers. So, whether you have the gene or not, in terms of looking to improve your ability to manage others, there’s clearly not much you can do about the ‘born’ part at this stage; what you can do, though, is focus on the ‘made’ part. And in doing so, you should think about your own strengths and areas for improvement with a view to constantly seeking to get better at what you do. Naturally, there is no model of the perfect leader against which to benchmark yourself, but here are some key traits and skills – in no order of importance – that are seen in all effective managers. You should reflect upon how well you perform against each of them at present.
The best managers:
1. Lift others
Some people could suck the life out of you given half a chance, and dealing with them is draining at the best of times. You know the type, the ‘heavy sighers’, the doom-and-gloomers or the ‘end-is-nigh’ brigade. Not so as far as effective managers are concerned. They do the opposite and make you feel energised and engaged, not in a corny seize-the-day sense, but interacting with them just feels good. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you need to be one of those Mr. or Mrs. Motivator types to succeed as a manager, but certainly you do need to be able to lift others around you, in your own way and appropriate to the culture of where you work of course.
2. Connect with people
Leading others means connecting with them, in a substantive way, and that in part requires you to be an effective communicator: you cannot connect if you cannot reach and you cannot reach if you cannot communicate. The best managers have a natural talent for communicating and apart from the qualities and skills they possess which help them to interact well with others, they also get the point that they need to GET to the point; people don’t like wafflers, beat-around-the-bushers, or those who simply like the sound of their own voice.
3. Keep pushing
The best managers constantly set the bar higher in terms of their own performance; they never settle for second best and are self-motivated and goal-orientated individuals. And they demand the same of others too, although in doing so they never expect people to be ‘just like them’ but they do want their employees individually and collectively to achieve things.
4. Have a vision
A lot of people sneer at the visualising stuff and to be fair there is often a lot of nonsense spouted about it, but at the end of the day, it is not possible to ‘bring people with you’ if you haven’t got a clear sense of where you’re headed which you can communicate in terms that matter to them; for example, making a profit is a worthy aim, but it’s unlikely to mean a whole lot to your employees (unless they share in the profits, of course). Having a vision is not about the ‘climbing-to-the-top-of-the-mountain’ guff you often see depicted in photo adverts for MBA programmes and the like but, again in your own way, you need to have a clear picture of where you’re headed which you can get your people to ‘buy into’.
5. Are smart
The best managers are bright characters but not always in a ‘booky’ way, although at the same time, they never wear the ‘D’ for dunce hat either. They have a range of smarts which help them to master the technical skills associated with their role, analyse problems and make decisions based on a solid understanding of relevant micro and macro issues. Added to that, they always seem to have a fair helping of that critical, if somewhat intangible, commodity called common sense.
6. Champion change
The status quo can be appealing at times; if nothing else, the tried and tested is less hassle and ‘when it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it right?’ And yes that’s true to an extent, but it very much depends upon how you define broke. Just because something is working or going well, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon or further enhanced. The best bosses are those who are not afraid to try different things. New is good, as far as they are concerned, if it means potentially achieving better results. They are open to taking calculated risks in the first place which means they can push boundaries, but in doing so, they also excel at harnessing the knowledge of those around them to the point where ideas and suggestions are welcomed from many sources and the flow of creativity is encouraged throughout the business. They recognise that the manager’s role is not necessarily to have all the right answers but to know how to find them.
7. Involve people
Everywhere you go these days in business circles you hear talk of empowerment; ‘people are your greatest asset, so maximise the returns they deliver for you’ and all that. Sadly, it’s often just hot air. The best managers however do it for real because they recognise that genuinely including people in the running of the business delivers improved results. They understand that when people, or at least the majority, are empowered in a meaningful sense they feel valued and respected and because of that they give more. In the eyes of effective mangers, everyone is given a chance to participate and contribute. That said, those who don’t play their part are not tolerated for long though.
8. Age well, like good wine
Experience helps, if we are doing the right things, that is; continuing to do the wrong things simply makes a person progressively worse not better. Like everyone else, the best managers have faults and make mistakes but they learn from them and because they have a real desire for self-development, they continuously improve over time – they never see themselves as being the finished article.
9. Live by a creed
In recent years there have been many examples of once lauded executives who have spectacularly fallen from grace. Sure, they all crashed and burned for different reasons, but a big factor in their downfall was that they each lost their moral compass, or maybe they never had one in the first place. That is not to say that good managers are always Holy Joes, but they do know right from wrong, and more importantly than that, they choose the right path even when that may be the more difficult option.
10. Have great self-control
This one is probably a bit more on the ’nature’ side of the equation, but it is possible to develop your levels of self-control over time, so in that sense it can be nurtured. Self-control is vital because it helps effective managers in so many aspects of what they do. For starters, it allows them to think clearly, which helps in decision-making and that in turn results in fewer mistakes. It also enables them to act rationally not emotionally when faced with difficult people or situations, so they can decide which leadership style is best to apply in any given situation. In general, the ability to maintain self-control helps them to ‘think’ first and then ‘do’ in a variety of situations which makes them more effective all round.
Okay, this is not an exhaustive list of talents you need to succeed as a manager, but it’s a good start in terms of factors that set the best apart. As to rs4950, I’m sure you have that too, but either way it’s out of your control at this stage, so focus on what you can tangibly do to improve your performance. And, in doing so, the above list is well worth considering as a first step.
How would you currently rate yourself in each of those dimensions?
Enjoy your day!