The Emerging Leader

Is it really possible to ‘create’ a leader?

The time-worn debate as to whether leaders are born or made has never been fully resolved. It may never be, because the issue is complicated, influenced by multiple variables and it’s inevitably context sensitive.

The major problem I see with the issue is its lack of relevance and helpfulness. It’s a ‘cop-out’ question that deflects attention from the real issue which is whether leadership strengths and skills can be acquired and put to use.

No one would disagree with the position that leadership is a dynamic process; it cannot be static and unresponsive to prevailing demands by its very nature. This must mean that leadership applications must be dynamic too, and that leadership effectiveness must be assessed in terms of appropriateness of response as well as final outcomes.

Every leader has certainly asked him/her self the pivotal question, "Am I good enough to take on this challenge?’ That initial moment of self doubt is surely a universal ritual for us all whenever we have sufficient time and space to consider it. Every one of the great leaders I’ve been privileged to know has admitted to the question, and without embarrassment. It’s right and it is proper!

In fact, truly effective leaders are bound to be plagued with self doubts and uncertainties. The role requires that the leader must first get to know the innermost thoughts and desires of others and then become aware of how to influence others’ behaviors in order to help them to move to a different place. This could never be easy or natural.

So, what is it that leaders can create both within and between self and others that could enhance success?

The Vital Intervention. . .
As always, we need to work with a definition of what leadership really is.

It is not, as most of us know, charisma – where we seek to emulate those who’ve by sheer force of personality have led others physically, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually ‘over the top’. Nor is it bureaucratic – where we’ve commanded, made edicts, issued orders and dictated standards from within the system. It is not authoritative either, particularly in today’s ‘wired world’ where everyone has access to as much information, resources, and/or power - real and implied – as we do.

Leadership is the proven ability to create alternative futures. Each alternative future has to exist somewhere first, and that’s usually within the minds of others – who may or may not be aware of its existence. The leader focuses the potential future – in the form of desires and affective states – that others already own. A vision of ‘what-could-be’ is formed and fashioned within the minds of those involved to the point that definitive action becomes inevitable.

Much of this formation and fashioning takes place at an unconscious level; beyond the direct control and influence of the conscious or rational mind. This is why people respond less readily to reasoned argument than to emotional appeal – a fact well known to the advertising world. It also explains why we sometimes do things that make little or no sense; we only know that they’re important to us.

So the leader taps into the emotional needs of others and helps them to realize that an alternate future is more desirable than that they accept as normal and expected. In doing so, the leader must be careful not to remove the core element of ownership of the vision – it has to remain the full property of the originator lest it lose its driving power.

Now the leader is in a position to leverage action, through reason, negotiation, inducements (incentives and disincentives), dreams and aspirations, threats and promises. By constructing a coherent and reinforcing series of events the leader can move others towards an outcome that is more valued and appreciated than what would have ensued without the intervention.

How does this work? . . .
This process of focusing and facilitating is not easy; by its very nature it is not natural. Left to their own devices there’s a high probability that followers would not take the suggested path but would rather repeat their past experiences and enjoy their familiar and comfortable rewards. The leadership intervention is not a popular course.

We’re all creatures of habit and we all aspire to a comfortable life; the older we become the more attractive comfort and routine seems. We hanker after change but yet it isn’t always a desired option as is well demonstrated by the Change Equation thus;

C = (A + B – D) > X

where C = Preparedness to change;
A = Dissatisfaction with the status quo;
B = Availability of a desirable alternative;
D = the effort required to effect the change; and
X = the fear of the consequences of failure.

Imagine that you are in an unhappy relationship and you are evaluating your options:

  • Unless you’re traumatically or seriously unhappy you’re likely to stick around and hope for improvement – A
  • When another, replacement relationship is offered, you still may not elect to take action immediately – B
  • If you can find an ‘easy’ way out you could be tempted to initiate action, yet you’re still very cautious – D, and
  • You’ll worry about the situation back-firing; final outcomes being messier than present circumstances – X.

It isn’t hard to imagine that these considerations might arise in the minds of those who need leadership – we’ve all experienced them. So focusing the desire for change isn’t a simple proposition and it will make significant demands on the would-be leader.

The aspiring leader can become increasingly sensitive to the complexities and confusions that exist in the minds of others by a relatively simple device – emotional awareness – not of others but of one self. The more the aspiring leader is in touch with his/her own feelings, honestly recognizing and responding to non-rational emotions, the more likely it is that such states will be identified and respected in others.

The presence of tell-tale signs within oneself - suppression (it isn’t really that bad!) or denial (that’s not how I’m feeling, at all!) - are certain indications that the signs / symptoms will be ignored in others; leadership will fail.

Facilitation, the essential second phase of the intervention, will rarely work in the absence of empathy. At first appearance this would seem to be the same as for focusing, but this is not so!

Empathy demands much more of us than self awareness; it includes patience, thoughtfulness, diplomacy, sensitivity, resilience, persistence, tolerance and courage. These are among the more difficult traits and personal strengths to identify in our questing society because we have not nurtured and reinforced them as well as we should. It’s a rare individual who will invest the time and effort to develop these attributes because society, and business particularly, do not reward them openly.

Getting Started . . .
Any emerging leader should first take stock of what personal traits and strengths are prominent at this time. An honest appraisal is the start line for change within oneself and in knowing the true state of other-centered relationships. As Robert Quinn has successfully argued, our first task is to be self-directed and only then can we be properly ‘other’ aware.

Take inventory of your traits and personal strengths; know what you have in your ‘leadership toolbox’ and how you currently use these tools to create strategies for handling the challenges that you face. Experience yourself in action and know where you are strong and where you would benefit from engaging the abilities of others.

Good leaders are not supermen/women; they are collaborative, enabling, reinforcing influencers. They use their attributes together with those of others to create mutual success and benefits; they bring out the best in other people and in so doing, they stimulate leadership in others – the confidence and competence to form alternative futures.

First know yourself; then assist others to get to know themselves. The remarkable leader works continuously on increasing self awareness and on those traits and strengths that translate into empathic interventions for change.

What got you here . . .
One fact is certain – there will be so many different situations in which leadership is needed that predicting them is close to impossible. You cannot prepare for what is unknown but you can get to know yourself with deeper, more enduring certainty. You can never know everyone with whom you will need to have a leadership relationship but you can enhance your empathic abilities with every experience you have.

What has happened in the past is no guarantee that success is assured in the future and no experience can offer you anything of value other than retroactive self insight. You can ‘train’ your emotional mind to recognize and capitalize on dopamine-induced behaviours (see October issue) that will result in consistent outcomes if you will review and rehearse every single complex experience for its learning points.

You can learn to recognize and employ the ‘intuitive’ behaviors that work for you by constantly seeking to improve your experience as a leader; your past experiences will help to improve similar future events. However, you cannot override your adaptive or emotional subconscious with pure rationality – it simply doesn’t work that way!

Your rational mind will help you in new and unusual leadership situations, ones that you’ve not experienced before. Here you must reduce the variables to a manageable number and take the time to think it through, engaging the different perspectives and attributes of others to amplify your outcomes. This is learning of a different kind.

Manage your mind and you’ll grow as a leader.

The Bottom Line . . .
The main attributes of a leader are intrinsic. Those who can lead and manage themselves are more credible and more effective that those who rely on pure hype and/or raw power. "One who conquers himself is greater than another who conquers a thousand times a thousand men on the battlefield” -- Buddha – The Dhammapada. If we reflect on what it is that makes a leader attractive to followers, it is the consistent, confident traits of self awareness and empathy.

Every leadership challenge is different and they change with increasing rapidity in today’s volatile world; we cannot possibly anticipate them all. We can become self directed and ‘other aware’ through deliberate interventions and by being conscientious in our appraisals of how we work best as individuals.

The key to using our personal attributes well, as a leader or otherwise, is our ability to use our mind competently. We need to become increasingly aware of our thought processes and to manage our minds to best advantage.

Leaders invest in themselves; they become the fulcrum for effective change in themselves as well as in others.

I'd welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your experiences will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at

A Note to our Readers . . .

Previous series of articles on the topics of

  • Tomorrow’s Leaders – a model for SME organizations
  • The Leadership Crucible the ‘making’ of leaders
  • Leadership Characteristics a comprehensive catalogue of leader qualities
  • Succession Planning the strategic argument, principles and strategies, and
  • Managing Change – every person’s guide to painless processes

have been summarized as discussion guides for those who lead and manage through mentoring and coaching. If you would like to secure a copy for your own use, please contact us.

It is a pleasure to share ideas with you and we’d welcome your questions, suggestions and comments. They’ll assist us refine and expand the essential value of these initiatives. Thanks in anticipation for your participation.