Are leaders born or made?
Anyone familiar with the original version of The Office, which first aired in the UK in the early 2000s, will be painfully aware that the central character, David Brent, has no leadership skills whatsoever. In fact, he has no discernible business skills of any kind, and one of the great mysteries of the show is how he ever ascended to a position of seniority. This leads to the question: Are leaders born or made?
The US incarnation of the series tells a slightly different story. Here Brent’s equivalent, Michael Scott, is cursed with much the same idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies and self-delusions, but he also boasts an impressive record as an award-winning salesman. In this instance, shambolic leadership is a consequence of ill-advised promotion.
Why was it was so unwise to push Scott up the corporate ladder? The question goes to the heart of a puzzle that has fascinated the economic, political and business communities for centuries: whether leaders are born or made.
For a long time, it was largely believed that some people are innately blessed with the skills required to lead: Seemingly answering the question are leaders born or made? Thankfully, our understanding has become rather more nuanced in recent decades. While some level of inherent ability may well be involved, today it’s generally accepted that many of the skills that leadership demands can be developed and learnt.
The principal problem for Brent, who has no skills, and Scott, who has the wrong skills, is an unwillingness to admit that their skillsets are thoroughly unfit for the task at hand. So how might they seek to improve if – as unlikely as it seems – they were to concede their own shortcomings?
The power of interpersonal skills can’t be understated. Brent’s uselessness in this regard is famously manifest, as evidenced by his near-relentless capacity to commit the most excruciating faux pas.
Yet it’s Scott’s ineptitude that’s more revealing here because it underlines how no amount of business acumen or market knowledge can compensate for an inability to connect and communicate with colleagues. Scott knows his industry inside-out, but he doesn’t understand that leadership is about managing people, not products, and that being able to rattle off facts and figures represents only a tiny aspect of his job.
Above all, he doesn’t understand that a leader has to earn respect. This means being a good listener and letting employees know that they’re being heard; it means giving colleagues all the information needed to perform well; and it means framing and conveying objectives in such a way that they’re treated as meaningful, worthwhile and legitimate.
Somewhere, somehow, Scott may just have a coherent vision of his company’s future. So, too, might Brent. But no vision can be successfully shared, let alone achieved, in the absence of genuine collaboration.
Learning from others
One means of developing the interpersonal skills necessary for leadership is to learn from other leaders, whether good or bad. There’s no doubt that The Office, however perversely, has helped highlight what doesn’t constitute an effective leader, and there are plenty of ways to discover what does.
There are thousands of books on leadership, ranging from ancient classics such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to the modern-day likes of James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s The Truth About Leadership. While these certainly can’t provide every conceivable insight, it pays to read widely – and to remember that plenty of potentially useful tomes aren’t always categorised under “business”.
It also pays simply to watch, experience and emulate. This doesn’t mean merely copying ideas, behaviours and attitudes: rather, it means critically observing, cherry-picking what appears most useful, trying to put it into practice and seeing if it works.
It can be tempting to seek inspiration from high-profile entrepreneurs. Sure enough, these, too, are likely to have reached the top through a combination of innate skills, developed skills and sheer hard work. But it’s important to recognise that good leaders come in many forms and that valuable lessons can be found all around us.
The bigger picture
Perhaps what Brent and Scott lack most of all is self-awareness. They have no concept of – and seemingly no interest in – how they’re perceived by the people they’re supposedly leading. They’re entirely blind to their own shortcomings and to the broader impact of their failings. Although their blinkeredness is amplified for comic effect, such a situation isn’t uncommon: there are countless putative leaders who inspire apathy, resentment or borderline mutiny and can’t see that they’re to blame.
Some have no interest in the bigger picture and care only about themselves. Some might have an inkling that the bigger picture is unhealthy but don’t grasp where the source of the malaise lies – that is, with them. Some – despite all the evidence to the contrary – continue to interpret the bigger picture as a universe in which they’re the sun, central and all-powerful, and all other parties are but humble satellites that revolve around them and bask in their radiance.
Brent and Scott essentially fall into the last category. And it really does get no worse than that. So could these poor, deluded souls ever become effective leaders?
We have to acknowledge, of course, that there are square pegs and round holes and that in the end some people just aren’t cut out for leadership roles. This is what the desperate duo’s respective companies should have realised many moons ago. But if we accept that leaders are made then maybe nobody is entirely beyond hope – provided that they and their employers are prepared to embrace the challenge in a positive, pragmatic and productive way.
David Falzani MBE is an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.